EGYPT’S proximity to Syria, Libya, Sudan and Somalia, both geographically and culturally, results in a large number of people seeking refuge in that country. It is home to over 260,000 refugees and asylum seekers, over half of whom are from Syria.
However, Egypt itself has been in political turmoil since 2011, when a revolutionary wave of protests swept the Arab world. As a consequence, there are at least 27,000 people of Egyptian origin seeking refugee status elsewhere.
In Egypt, the UNHCR has maintained a presence to register and provide support to refugees. The organisation had made an appeal for a total of £123 million ($190m) this year to support its operations in Egypt but receipts have only been a quarter of that. This shortage of funds, coupled with the general lack of public resources in Egypt, has put great financial pressure on refugees. Unlike Jordan or Turkey where large scale UN funded camps have been built, all refugees in Egypt live in urban environments, presenting unique protection challenges.
The living conditions for many Syrians in Cairo can be dire, so a large number are instead opting to move further on to Europe. The International Business Times profiled Yehia, a refugee whose family took four months to find a one-bedroom apartment in a neighbourhood of Cairo. Before that, they shared a two-bedroom apartment with another Syrian family. His children had not been able to attend school regularly. Also, as he did not hold an employment card in Egypt, it took him a long time to find a job.
It’s hard to comprehend this continued pressure that Syrians now face; escaping violent civil war and seeking refuge in a country that, while welcoming, is buckling under the strain.
For these reasons, refugees like Yehia who led a productive life and and were able to support their families in Syria reasonably well, have been choosing to emigrate to Europe. They may have escaped civil war, but most Syrians are still seeking sanctuary: a place to live, a place where they can work and their children can study and have the opportunity for a better future.
The current crisis has been years in the making; first, with the long running conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and subsequently as a result of the failure to act decisively in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Rather than exceptional levels of humanitarian assistance and support for newly formed democratic institutions in Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan and Yemen, many governments are fighting proxy wars for control of political influence in these countries. Several western and Arab countries have provided heavy weaponry and surveillance support to rebel groups with questionable morality.
These are also regions where the US continues large scale (and possibly illegal) drone warfare and the UK has deployed military hardware worth billions of pounds and spent £200m on the campaign in Libya alone. In Syria, these weapons are intended for groups fighting Islamic State, but in a civil war it is the average citizens who inadvertently end up being the real victims instead.
These geopolitical complexities leave Syrians with no choice but to leave the country. Egypt may be the first stop for many refugees, but the real answers, and solutions, lie within Europe.