Egypt rejects Europe’s intent to set up ‘regional disembarkation centres,’ citing heavy refugee burden

Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria have rejected the idea of regional disembarkation centres.
Sunday 08/07/2018
Endless stream. Palestinians wait to cross the border to the Egyptian side of Rafah crossing in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, last May.   (AP)
Endless stream. Palestinians wait to cross the border to the Egyptian side of Rafah crossing in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, last May. (AP)

CAIRO - Egypt’s opposition to establishing camps for screening migrants heading to Europe has made the European Union’s “regional disembarkation centres” proposal seem even more implausible.

Cairo’s stand has underscored the deep worries in the Egyptian administration about the country’s increasing refugee responsibilities, analysts said.

“This is a burden Egypt shoulders alone, without any support from the international community,” said MP Ghada Agamy, a member of the Egyptian parliament’s Foreign Relations Committee.

Egypt said it would not be able to accommodate “regional disembarkation centres” for migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe just hours after European leaders reached a controversial migration deal that included refugee centres in North Africa and “controlled centres” in European countries.

Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria have rejected the idea of regional disembarkation centres. The Egyptian government said establishing refugee camps would violate the Egyptian constitution. Refugees, Egyptian parliament Speaker Ali Abdel A’al said, can live wherever they want in Egypt. “We do not establish camps here,” he said.

Egyptian officials are concerned about Cairo’s ability to shoulder refugee-related burdens, analysts said, particularly at a time of economic transition.

There are no official government figures on the number of refugees in Egypt or where they come from but Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has stated that Egypt hosts about 5 million refugees. Egypt has received a significant number of refugees from various regional conflicts, most recently the Libyan and Syrian wars. Egypt is also known to have significant Iraqi and Palestinian communities.

In addition to refugees fleeing Arab conflicts, there are estimated to be hundreds of thousands of economic migrants and asylum seekers from Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia. However, only 300,000 refugees are registered with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

“The people registered receive support,” said Marwa Hashem, a UNHCR spokeswoman. “Others, however, do not get any support from the UN whatsoever.”

The UNHCR has an annual budget of $45 million for Egypt. This money, Hashem said, goes totally towards the refugees, meaning that the Egyptian government receives no support for hosting refugees.

Refugees in Egypt, unlike many other Arab countries, are not automatically barred from public services, meaning they share social benefits, including education, health services, transportation and employment, with Egyptian citizens.

“This is a huge burden for a country with limited resources and tough economic conditions like Egypt,” Agamy said.

With a population of 100 million, accumulating debt, an economy struggling to recover from the post-Mubarak turmoil and a war against terrorism, Egypt is far from prepared to take in more refugees or shoulder any additional refugee-related burdens, Agamy said.

Egypt is a transit point for many refugees and asylum-seekers arriving from other Arab and African countries en route to Europe.

However, measures by Egyptian authorities to curb the use of the country’s coasts as departure points for Europe means that many of refugees cannot leave Egypt.

This is not the first time Egypt has rejected the idea of “disembarkation” facilities. In December, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos that Egypt opposed the idea of “regional disembarkation centres.”

He said Egypt had not received support from the international community, even though it had hosted many refugees for a long time.

Instead of asking economically struggling countries to act as refugee hosts, European leaders need to solve the problems that cause these refugees to leave their countries in the first place, particularly the unrest that has engulfed many countries, Egyptian specialists said.

“The solution to the problem will be to resettle these refugees in their countries,” said Youssef al-Metany, a refugee lawyer at local NGO Egyptian Network for International Law. “This can only happen when the conflicts raging in these countries are settled.”

9