The invisible Palestinians of Egypt
Refugees face discrimination, poverty and no access to basic services
Palestinians in Egypt have been living for the last 25 five years without any international or national assistance or protection. Very little is known about their status, especially that there are no refugee camps hosting them. The Palestinians as refugees in Egypt and their living situation has not been a matter of concern in most of the literature, neither for the PLO nor for people in Egypt as an issue to draw attention to. To fill this gap, for the last two years I have conducted research on the Palestinians and their condition and livelihoods in Egypt. Along with searching literature about what has been written about those “forgotten Palestinians,” we also conducted a qualitative field study to collect vivid experiences from Palestinians in Egypt about their daily struggles as refugees.
Palestinians in Egypt were estimated to be about 53,000 by the end of 2000, according to the ambassador of Palestine to Egypt, Zuhdi al-Qudweh. Two main reasons brought Palestinians to Egypt over the years. First, the two Palestinian-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967 brought Palestinians en masse to Egypt. They were put in temporary camps in Egypt before being asked to either leave to Gaza when possible or to settle in Egypt.
Second, socio-economic reasons, especially after Egypt administered the Gaza Strip as of 1949, brought many Palestinians, mainly from Gaza, to work and to be educated in Egypt. With time, and due to the 1967 war, they were unable to return to Gaza and had to remain. Except for the unions supported by the PLO, Palestinians are not seen as a community in the areas in which they live in Egypt. They are dispersed in small numbers and assimilated in the main urban governorates in Egypt, such as Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailieh, Port Said, Shariqieh Qualyibieh, Rafah and Ariesh.
Until 1978, Palestinians in Egypt were treated on a par with nationals. They were able to acquire education, even university degrees, secure employment even in the government and own property and land. Egypt’s Palestinians made up a good percentage of those working in the Gulf during the 1960s and 1970s, because of their high qualifications. During this period, Palestinians were known as highly educated professionals; they worked in medicine, commerce, engineering, teaching and management.
The Camp David peace accords and the killing of Youssef al-Sibai in 1978 by a Palestinian faction group of Abu Nidal al-Banna had a negative impact on Egyptian policy toward Palestinians in Egypt, with newspapers in this country orchestrating negative images. For example, some accused Palestinians of “ingratitude,” of being responsible for their own situation by “selling their land,” and referring to them as the “economic Palestinian monsters” devouring the Egyptian economy.
Laws and regulations were amended to treat Palestinians as foreigners. Their rights to free education, employment and even residency were taken away from them. University education now has to be paid for in foreign currency. For example, from 1965-1978, Palestinian students studying at universities had numbered 20,000, but by 1985 the number had dropped to 4,500. Those enrolled in public universities between the years 1997-1998 and 2000-2001 were 3,048.
Those who had established themselves earlier in the public and the private sector were able to remain in their positions. Government employees or professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, kept their posts. No new Palestinians were hired by the state, however. With access to government jobs gone, they are left with the private sector and the informal economy. The private sector requires skills, which, without education, Palestinians are unable to obtain. It also requires work permits, and in Egypt the number of “foreigners” may not exceed 10 percent of the work force. Palestinians are forced to find work in such sectors as driving trucks and taxis for others, bicycle repair shops, petty trade in commodities such as used clothing on the street, and ‘suitcase merchants’ who take items from various parts of Egypt to sell in Gaza but now even this trade has stopped because of the intifada.
According to the field interviews with Palestinians dispersed in squatter areas in Cairo, Sharqieh and Qualiubieh governorates, many of the Palestinians are living far below the poverty line, since their income from informal sector opportunities is very unstable.
The situation is better for the employees of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation Army and current and former Egyptian government employees. They are ensured regular income, and, later, a regular pension. In addition to the education of their children, they are exempted from 90 percent of university fees.
Renewal of Palestinian residency permits in Egypt is conditional on paying a fee and proving they have a reason to be here even though none of them can go back to Palestine. Each must provide evidence of attending a school or university, legal employment (a work contract), a business partnership with an Egyptian, or marriage with an Egyptian woman, to mention a few. Lacking any of these, they must have a bank statement showing they have $5000. As consequence there are many Palestinians living illegally without residency in Egypt, and they all risk being jailed or deported.
All Palestinians in Egypt have travel documents on which their residency permits are stamped. Travel is also conditional; being out of the country more than six months invalidates the residency in Egypt. If they want to stay longer, they must apply for a re-entry permit which requires proof of a work permit or student status elsewhere, and they can only remain out of Egypt for one year at the most. Palestinians who return late are not permitted to enter. Recently, such a case reported in the Al-Hayat Newspaper in November 2002 involved a student in Moscow who spent 14 months between the airports of Egypt and Russia. Eventually, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) helped him get asylum in Sweden.
Who protects the rights of Palestinians in Egypt? UNHCR is expected to protect Palestinians who are outside UNRWA’s areas of operation. However, due to an Arab political decision, UNHCR has been hampered in protecting Palestinians. The Arab League feared that Palestinians, if protected by UNHCR, would lose their identity, and their cause would be diluted, particularly if UNHCR “resettled” them to other countries.
As for national protection, Egypt and other Arab countries committed to grant Palestinian refugees residence, and the right to work and travel, on the same footing as their own citizens, when it signed the 1965 Arab League Casablanca Protocol. From 1978, this commitment has not been upheld.
The general perception in the region has been that Palestinians in Egypt have been treated like citizens. In fact, as our research has shown, they have been invisible people of sorts, eeking out their living without the attention of the international community.
Oroub El Abed, research associate at the Forced Migration Refugee Studies Program at the American University in Cairo (www.aucegypt.edu/fmrs), wrote this briefing for THE DAILY STAR. She can be contacted at oroubaucegypt.edu
Deportation from Cairo, 5 March 2004
Throughout my time doing research on Palestinian refugees in Egypt, I experienced interference from the Egyptian security authorities. This has now culminated in being held at Cairo airport when on the way from my home in Amman, Jordan to present a paper in Cairo on the unprotected Palestinians in Egypt. Later I was refused entry to Egypt and deported.
From Sept. 2001 to Sept. 2003, I was based in Cairo with the Forced Migration Refugee Studies Programme, American University in Cairo (AUC) where I taught a course on Palestinian refugee issues and conducted research on the livelihoods of Palestinian refugees of Egypt.
Background on the refugee issue
These Palestinians receive no protection, assistance or support from any United Nations body or from the host country. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was never permitted to serve Palestinian refugees in Egypt as it does in other host countries from the time it was established in 1949. Moreover, Palestinian refugees in Egypt have been excluded from the protection of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Egypt ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention in 1981 but remained reluctant to be bound by the Convention, apparently out of a perceived conflict between the status for Palestinians favoured by the Arab League and that of the Convention, and also because for many years the PLO had opposed providing individual Palestinian refugees with the status of the 1951 Convention because this was considered prejudicial to the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.
Arab countries, including Egypt, argue that the Palestinian refugee problem is to be resolved on the basis of a special formula of repatriation and compensation rather than the formula commonly accepted for refugees at the time, resettlement in a third country. Hence, UNHCR, despite the recent reinterpretation of the article 1D of the 1951 Convention considering refugees who are not served by other UN bodies as ipso facto refugees and entitled to the benefits of the convention, does not provide protection to Palestinians refugees in Egypt.
Egypt in turn permits no citizenship rights to Palestinians who reside there and hold Egyptian Travel Documents. As of 1978, Palestinians were denied all basic human rights that once were granted to them by President Nasser. For the last 26 years, they have had no rights to free education, to employment, to property or business ownership or to association. They are treated as foreigners. As is the case for any foreigner in Egypt, applying for a residency permit has to be justified. An official document, such as school or university attendance or work contract, must be provided even if the person were born in Egypt. Otherwise, their stay in Egypt is illegal, the case of a great number of young Palestinians in Egypt.
Palestinians, with Egyptian travel documents, can use the document under two conditions: to ensure re-entry, return to Egypt within six months or to apply for a return visa for one year by providing a work contract or proof of education enrolment abroad. If there is any delay in return, entry is denied.
State Security Attitude
While doing my research, I had encountered problems with the state security services. During field work, interviewing Palestinian families, I was summoned on 23 July 2002 to Lazoughli State Security department, and ordered to stop the interviews. In September 2003, as I was preparing for a workshop to disseminate the findings of my research and after having invited people from abroad to participate in the discussions, security tried to cancel the event by meeting with the AUC provost and the director of the FMRS. Fortunately, the university decided to proceed with the event, launch the executive summary report and discuss the research findings.
Six months after leaving Cairo and finishing my contract with AUC, I was invited to Cairo to present a paper at a conference held by BADIL (NGO based in Bethlehem) and Al Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies entitled CLOSING THE GAPS: FROM PROTECTION TO DURABLE SOLUTIONS FOR PALESTINIAN REFUGEES.
Backstage at Cairo Airport
On arrival in Cairo airport at 12:15 on 5 March 2004, at the passport check I was asked to wait for my name to be called. My passport was held.
Five minutes later, I was called by a security guard who accompanied me through small tunnels to the non-public area of the airport arrival hall. This led to a small corridor in the middle at which sat a policeman who asked me to write my name in his record book and to sit down. The corridor had two side exits. One led to a room full of Africans and Asians. It looked like a prison especially since a policeman was from time to time calling names, cuffing these persons and taking them out. The other end of the corridor looks over offices that later turned out to be State Security interrogation offices.
After 15 minutes, I was asked to join the prisoners in the crowded room. This tiny room leads to three small rooms with beds where many people were sleeping. This tiny waiting hall had one bathroom. Two hours after arrival, I was called for interrogation by the state security. Questions were: What do I do for living? What was I doing in Egypt for two years? What is, in general, the condition of Palestinians in Egypt? What are the negative/positive things that Egypt is doing for Palestinians? Why do I think Egypt changed its politics vis-à-vis the Palestinians in 1978?
After objectively answering the questions, based on my research, I was asked to leave. I then insisted that I should be told what would happen to me before I leave. I had to tell him bluntly, “ Since I come from another Arab country, I understand well that your country is not happy with the facts I am revealing and I understand that you do not welcome someone who tells the truth……..!” My interrogator smiled. I said, “I need to know what you will do to me”. He replied “in five minutes you will know”. Back to the little prison, within 15 minutes, a policeman came and asked me for my return ticket (Cairo-Amman). I was then booked to leave on the next Royal Jordanian flight at 10:30 pm. It was 4:00 pm so I still had another 6 hours to go!
I felt that it would be useful to call the organisers of the conference and see what steps they could take. I asked several times to make a phone call but in vain. In addition, to make a phone call meant changing money to Egyptian currency, buying a telephone card and making the call. For all this, I needed permission from the head of security and a policeman to accompany me through the process. I was therefore not able to contact anyone while in the little room backstage at the airport. In turn, while they had the flight details, I am not sure if BADIL or the al Ahram Center tried to reach me or to check on me.
At 8 p.m. sharp, I was called along with another Jordanian facing deportation to collect our bags and follow the policeman to check in our luggage. At the Royal Jordanian check-in, I was a problem!! No seats were available and there was a waiting list of seven. Fearful of having to sleep the night in the little prison, I had to beg the man to fit me in explaining I am not welcome in Egypt for security reasons and I must get out soon. Luckily,he sympathised and did fit me in.
After check-in, again we were asked to follow the policeman to the prison and wait there until boarding time 10:15 pm. The policeman accompanying us did not return our passports until we (the Jordanian man and I) were to get on the bus to take us to the plane. He seems to have been instructed not to trust us, fearing we would escape from his surveillance!
The Prison- The Tiny Waiting Hall
Of the many people who were in the waiting room, two cases drew my attention: A Palestinian, holding an Egyptian travel document was denied entry to Egypt since he overstayed his return visa. His mother is Egyptian and he was raised in Egypt where he remained until 15 years ago when he decided to leave and look for work elsewhere. Today, he works in Tanzania and was hoping to spend his holidays with his family in Cairo. The Egyptian authorities, denying him entry, told him to seek a visa for another country. Through contacts of his wife, he was waiting for a visa from Russia. He was not sure when he would leave, but he had hopes of receiving his visa in another five days.
Meeting Egyptians in that hall was a surprise. They are held in this prison because they have been living illegally in several countries of the Middle East. Upon leaving these countries, they paid a fine for having illegally extended their stay in the host country, but they surely did not expect that Egypt, their homeland would also punish them for having lived illegally abroad. They were expecting to be deported to another prison in the city.
The experience in all was enriching especially since during my research, I had heard many stories of Palestinians who are deported or those who spend months in this room in the airport. I was never able to imagine this room and the conditions in it. Now, I know. I was put in it, not as a researcher but as another person to be deported who had no access to the world. Egyptian authorities did not respect the fact that I was going to Cairo to attend a meeting approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (as the organisers claimed). They simply considered the fact of me being a researcher who talks about a sensitive issue--the Palestinians in Egypt—is a danger. Tbe executive report I published and the forthcoming book only mirrored facts on the ground of how Palestinians are treated in Egypt. In my analysis I used the tools of international refugee law and human rights declarations to call for justice in the treatment of Palestinians as humans and as refugees who are waiting for the day of return to Palestine.