Egypt’s refugees cannot wait to leave
Cairo - When he arrived with his wife and three children almost two years ago, refugee Yahia Abdel Ghani was hoping that Egypt would be his second home until he could return to Syria when the war ended.
As time went by, however, the 59-year-old lost hope of returning home and also of staying in Egypt.
“Life is becoming more difficult in Egypt day after day,” said Abdel Ghani, a native of Aleppo. “My children and I now think of nothing but how to leave to Europe.”
They are far from alone. Thousands of refugees who landed in Egypt are seeking to leave for more economically prosperous and politically stable countries.
As they grew in number, the refugees competed for the limited number of jobs available in this country, rubbed shoulders with Egyptians at the nation’s health care institutions, on public transport and in bustling markets.
Egypt, with a growing population and limited resources, has been struggling to regain its economic footing after years of turmoil following the 2011 “Arab spring” protests.
“I know of a lot of people who left to Europe in search of a better life,” said Rakan Abul Kheir, a Syrian community leader. “Some of them did everything possible to continue living here but Egypt has its deep economic problems.”
Almost three years ago, there were about 500,000 Syrian refugees in Egpyt, according to Abul Kheir. Some have found steady employment or started businesses. Many others, however, found daily life difficult, with jobs unavailable and education for their children unattainable.
Today, 140,000 Syrian refugees remain in Egypt, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They are among 256,384 refugees and asylum-seekers in Egypt registered with the agency.
UNHCR says more refugees in Egypt are likely to try to reach Europe via sea routes as smuggling and trafficking networks have taken advantage of the strained political and socioeconomic environment.
Abul Kheir says he knows quite a few who have already done so.
“Some of them succeeded in reaching Europe,” he said. “Others, however, drowned, like many illegal migrants.”
The influx of migrants has turned into an intolerable headache for European governments.
“Apart from all social and economic considerations, the fear in Europe is that some terrorists can sneak in as part of this endless flow of refugees,” said Nabil Zaki, a veteran political analyst. “This just means that the boats bringing the refugees to European shores can also bring death and violence with them.”
Egypt has signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol and the 1969 Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Convention governing aspects of refugee issues in Africa.
UNHCR says that, while Cairo grants some access to public primary health care and education, specialised care for chronic illnesses and rehabilitative intervention are not available to refugees nor are various public insurance schemes.
The absorption capacity in state schools remains an issue due to overcrowding and teacher shortages, UNHCR says.
Education and quality health care covered by insurance are simply things Abdel Ghani and his children cannot even contemplate. They worry about life’s basics: food, clothing and a roof under which they can live.
Abdel Ghani, who is too fragile to work, could not enroll his children in Egyptian universities because they need to earn money to buy food for the family and save for their dream of getting out of Egypt.
“We need to collect at least $3,000 to give for the smugglers to help us reach Europe,” Abdel Ghani said. “I know we can drown in the sea or be killed on the way but we will die anyway if we stay here.”