Causes and consequences

Origin of refugees in Egypt

The number of refugees in Egypt is unknown. It represents one of the five largest urban populations in the ‘developing world' ( Sperl 2001 ), and estimates vary widely from 500,000 to 3 million. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has assumed responsibility for status determination. In 2003 it reported only 17,632 recognized refugees. Over the period 1997 to 2003 UNHCR has rejected 32,000 cases (UNHCR Regional Office, Cairo), and since most people seeking asylum are unable to return, it is safe to assume the number of refugee in Egypt is far higher. The US Committee of Refugees in 2002 estimated there were 28,000 refugees in Egypt, excluding Palestinian refugees ( USCR - World Refugee Survey - Egypt Report 2003 ).

Refugees in Egypt are made up of some thirty-one different nationalities. The largest refugee group is from Sudan, followed by Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. There are also refugees from Afghanistan, Burundi, Iran, Iraq, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Yemen, as well as from many other African and other countries.

There are an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Palestinian refugees in Egypt, the majority from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, most of whom fled Palestine in 1948 and 1967. 1   .


United States Committee for Refugees - Egypt Report 2003


Refugees in Egypt

While Egypt has opened its borders to refugees, it has not requested international aid to address the refugee situation. There are no refugee camps in Egypt and the majority of the refugees live in urban areas such as the capital Cairo and Alexandria, the country’s main port and second largest city.


Conflict-induced displacement

In the last two decades, Egypt has become host country to refugees fleeing conflicts in Africa and Asia. The possibility of obtaining a one-month tourist visa at the airport upon arrival has made entry to Egypt relatively easy for many asylum seekers. However, Egypt is a country of first asylum and there are no local integration prospects: refugees who fit the criteria are resettled to third countries, this is believed to constitute a pull factor effect.


Refugee communities in Egypt

Sudanese refugees

The nineteen-year-old civil war in Sudan has caused the displacement of an estimated 500,000 Sudanese to eight neighbouring African countries: Egypt, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Chad, the Central African Republic, Eritrea, and the Democratic Republic of Congo 2   .

The largest refugee group in Egypt are the Sudanese refugees who make up 75 per cent of the asylum seeking refugee population in Egypt 3   . At the end of 2003 13,284 Sudanese refugees were recognized by UNHCR. The Sudanese refugees in Egypt come from all parts of Sudan, but the southern Sudanese make up the largest group 4   . According to the UNHCR Cairo Regional Office, in 2001, southern Sudanese made up 61 per cent of the recognized Sudanese refugee community. Sudanese refugees are made up of different ethnicities and speak different languages as well. Whereas the majority of northern, western and central Sudanese are Muslims, southern Sudanese are predominantly Christian.

Historically, Egypt and Sudan have enjoyed excellent relations. Many bilateral agreements have been signed allowing for the free passage of people and goods across the Sudanese–Egyptian border. In 1994 the Egyptian government requested that UNHCR screen Sudanese asylum seekers. In 1995, after an assassination attempt on Egyptian President Mubarak in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in which it was believed that the Sudanese government was implicated ( Hassan 2000 ), Egypt closed its borders and issued visa requirements for Sudanese nationals. Sudanese who wished to enter Egypt to reside there after that date needed a residence permit ( Sperl 2001 )

As of 1 June 2004 UNHCR Cairo has stopped registering all Sudanese asylum seekers for Refugee Status Determination (RSD) interviews and is only issuing them with yellow cards (temporary protection). The yellow cards are valid till the end of 2004. UNHCR has stated that by the end of 2004 the situation in Sudan will be reviewed and a decision will be taken regarding the status of the Sudanese refugees in Egypt. UNHCR has stated that if the situation remains the same, the temporary protection for the Sudanese asylum seekers will be extended; if the situation improves, UNHCR will promote voluntary repatriation; if the situation worsens, it will give prima facie recognition.

Sudanese refugees in Cairo are mostly concentrated in Maadi, Nasr City, Heliopolis, and Ain Shams ( UNHCR, 2003b ).


US Committee for Refugees - World Refugee Survey 2003 Country Report - Sudan -

US State Department - Country Report on Human Rights Practices 2002 - Sudan -

Somali refugees

This is the second largest group of refugees after the Sudanese. By the end of 2003 there were 2,922 Somali refugees recognized by UNHCR, which make up 17 per cent of the refugee population in Egypt ( UNHCR Cairo Regional Office 2003).

Somali refugees fled Somalia after the eruption of the power struggle brought about by the fall of Barre’s regime. There are an estimated 75,000 Somali refugees living in the Middle East (Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Libya) ( Al-Sharmani 2003 )

Somali refugees in Cairo live in two main neighbourhoods: Ard il Liwa in Giza and Nasr City. Most of the Somali refugees in Egypt belong to one of five clan families: Darood, Hawiye, Issaq, Dir, and Rahenweyn; there are also others from minority clans ( Al-Sharmani 2003 ).

Ethiopian refugees

By the end of 2003 there were 283 Ethiopian refugees recognized by UNHCR in Egypt. Ethiopian refugees make up 2 per cent of the total refugee population recognized by UNHCR ( UNHCR Cairo Regional Office 2003). Ethiopian refugees fled to Egypt in three waves: between 1977 and 1979 to escape the Mengistu regime; between 1991 and 1992 at the fall of the regime; and in 1998 to 2000 as a result of the border conflict with Eritrea, the suppression of civil liberties, and economic hardship ( Zohry and Harrell-Bond 2003 )

Eritrean refugees

The number of Eritrean refugees recognized by UNHCR in Egypt by the end of 2003 was eighty-one. In 2000 UNHCR and the Eritrean government’s invoking of the cessation clause caused Eritrean refugees in Sudan to flee to Egypt because of their fear of forcible repatriation. Eritrean refugees in Sudan had lost their refugee status by the end of 2002. The Ethiopians and Eritreans in Egypt are estimated to number around 5,000, the majority of them having been rejected by UNHCR ( Zohry and Harrell-Bond 2003 ; UNHCR news feature, ‘Eritrean Refugees in Sudan’)

Yemeni refugees

By the end of 2003 there were 345 Yemeni refugees recognized by UNHCR in Egypt ( UNHCR Cairo Regional Office 2003). In 2002, 137 Yemenis who expressed their wish to repatriate voluntarily were assisted by UNHCR to return home ( UNHCR, Country Operations Plan 2004 ). Some Yemenis in Egypt have not applied for asylum.


Development-induced displacement

After the Egyptian government had decided to go ahead with plans to build the High Dam in the south of the country in 1963, it started the relocation of the Nubian communities living between Aswan and the border of Sudan. The Nubians are an ethnic group and the Nubian population involved at the time numbered approximately 100,000. In 1963–4 the Nubians were resettled to Kom Ombo. This displacement of the Nubians from their traditional homes to their new ones had a number of effects including changes in agricultural methods as well as food and water problems ( Zohry and Harrell-Bond 2003 ).


Refugees from Egypt

In 2003 there were an estimated 2,000 Egyptians seeking asylum in Western countries 5   .


USCR - World Refugee Survey - Egypt Report 2003 -