Strengthening Egypt’s Refugee Programs | Wilson Center

Strengthening Egypt’s Refugee Programs

Over the past two years the number of registered refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt has increased by 21 percent. Today, Egypt is among the highest destination countries in Africa receiving documented and undocumented immigrants. Many are African, Yemeni, or Syrian refugees fleeing political instability, conflict, and civil war.

Despite Egypt’s hospitality and migrant support system, economic reforms and rising costs have impacted immigrants in Egypt particularly hard. Due to the country’s high unemployment rate and weak economy, many Egyptians are concerned about the strain refugees place on the country’s resources and infrastructure. As a result, refugees are without access to education, healthcare, employment opportunities, and other services. Such issues force many to turn to extreme measures like child labor and early marriages to survive.

Further restricting refugees, all foreigners in Egypt require a permit to work. The requirements are stringent and include an assessment of legal status, employer sponsorship, and non-competition with nationals. Employer quotas limit the number of non-Egyptians in employment and employers must sponsor an application for work, which is a lengthy and costly process.

Subsequently, only a tiny fraction of refugees have obtained work permits and even the most skilled face barriers in accessing formal labor markets. Moreover, refugees who are employed, report low wages, poor working conditions, long hours, and sexual exploitation.

Access to adequate housing is also a challenge due to cost and social bias. Single women and mothers face discrimination when seeking housing due to stigma—many Egyptian landlords prefer renting to two-parent households.

Refugees don’t choose to leave their homes and a good life; instead they are forced to do so, due to conflict and war. They have lost everything, and it is our responsibility to help them. Accepting and integrating them into the community is as beneficial for Egypt as it is for the refugees themselves.

Refugees do not live in isolated camps, but are integrated into society. With support, they have the opportunity to establish businesses and partnerships in street food projects, textile factories, and trade companies—playing an important part in Egypt’s economy.

Organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) protection services, including refugee registration programs, were a stepping stone to these success stories. However, this program and others like it are at great risk of losing funding.

In particular, the UNHCR stresses concern for maintaining protection programs for the vulnerable children. Around 40 percent of Egypt’s refugees are children, many of whom arrived in the country alone. Without funding, unaccompanied minors are vulnerable to violence, abuse, neglect, exploitation, early marriage, and child labor. In accordance with the Government of Egypt’s strategy for combating childhood marriages, UNHCR and similar organizations provide counseling to families and educational activities to prevent early marriages.

UNHCR and its education partner, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), also assisted 18,108 Syrian refugee children enrolled in public schools with education grants to promote access to education. The education grants contribute to school fees, school uniforms, books, stationery, and transportation. These grants help circumvent the barriers, including lack of documentation, refugee children face.

Through my work with refugees at Caritas Egypt, I have seen how important UNHCR and other international organizations are to supporting this vulnerable population. Continuing to fund these programs is critical to ensuring that Egypt can welcome individuals seeking a life of opportunity for themselves and their families. 

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