Anti-refugee sentiment grows in Egypt, sparking restriction fears among Syrians

Social media sites have been flooded with comments from Egyptians calling for supervision of the financial dealings of Syrians.
Sunday 23/06/2019
A Syrian refugee works at a restaurant in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria. (AFP)
Facing doubts. A Syrian refugee works at a restaurant in Egypt’s second city of Alexandria. (AFP)

CAIRO - Syrian refugees in Egypt have expressed fear for their investments and personal safety after an Egyptian lawyer lodged an official complaint in which he called for imposing tighter supervision on Syrians’ assets.

Lawyer Samir Sabri estimated, in his complaint to the public prosecutor’s office, that $23 billion had been taken by Syrian refugees to Egypt following the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

The Syrians used the money, he said, to buy shops, flats and villas, turning some districts in Cairo into Syrian colonies. He added that the Syrians bought factories and imposed total control on some sectors of the economy, including the textile sector.

Tens of thousands of Syrians arrived in Egypt since the start of the civil war in their country. About 130,000 refugees are registered with the UN refugee agency but that only includes Syrians who applied for UN support.

There are tens of thousands of other refugees who did not report to the UN office, which is why some estimates put the number of Syrians in Egypt at more than 300,000.

Some Syrians have created successful businesses in Egypt. Syrian patisserie shops are winning the day against Egyptian peers. Syrian restaurants are proving a favourite for Egyptians developing an interest in Syrian cuisine.

This has led to accusations that the Syrians have stolen the market and jobs from Egyptians. About 8.1% of the Egyptian workforce was unemployed in the first quarter of this year.

Some Egyptian observers accused the Syrians of having links with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organisation which Cairo gave a terrorist tag in 2014.

Nabil Naeem, a former militant leader who is a media figure specialising in terrorism and terrorist groups, said some Syrians in Egypt are bankrolled by Muslim Brotherhood organisations to help the group destabilise Egypt.

He said that, while attending a conference in Lebanon a few months ago, he was told by Syrian sheikhs that Brotherhood money was behind most of the projects started by Syrians in Egypt.

He claimed that Syrians travelling to Egypt after the conference said they were given the air travel tickets by Brotherhood societies.

“This is why Syrians with links to the Brotherhood have to be kicked out of our country,” Naeem said.

His comments and the complaint lodged by Sabri are creating an anti-refugee sentiment in a country that has shown the Syrians generous hospitality since 2011.

Social media sites have been flooded with comments from Egyptians calling for the supervision of Syrians’ financial dealings.

“They escaped the war in their country and came to Egypt, owning nothing but the clothes covering their skin,” wrote Mohamed Abdel Mawla on Twitter. “Now they own factories, companies, shops and millions of pounds. How?”

The Syrians said they make money by working day and night and serving Egyptians.

“God only knows how hard we work to earn a living,” said Shaher Khaldoun, a Syrian refugee who owns a shop for aluminium windows in Giza province. “Life is far from easy for us.”

Khaldoun said he had to work and save for years before he could open his shop. Other Syrians do the same.

Anti-refugee campaigns coincide with similar attacks in other countries, including in Lebanon where there have been reports of citizens demanding the confiscation of Syrians’ assets.

These campaigns often overlook the realities of refugee life. While some Syrians have created successful business models in Egypt, most refugees are suffering and need support.

Rakan Abulkheir, a self-styled head of the Syrian community in 6th of October City on the outskirts of Cairo, said most of the refugees work hard to secure the simplest of needs.

“Some refugees have to stop attending school to work and feed their families,” Abulkheir said. “They escaped death back in their country to seek a new life here, not to destabilise Egypt or cause problems for its people.”