The International Human Rights Clinic’s Trip to Egypt

In my last post, I didn’t have the opportunity to delve too deeply into the International Human Rights Clinic’s Syrian Refugee Project. Now that both the Egypt and the Turkey research teams have completed their field assignments, I wanted to share some of my team’s findings and experiences in Cairo.

Cairo is like nothing I’ve ever seen. The chaos of honking horns and squealing tires on every street—a result of the utter lack of traffic regulations—would make New York City seem like Zen paradise. After our last interviews at the American University in Cairo, the professors organized a short felucca boat picnic for our team and some AUC students on the Nile River. As soon as we set sail, the noise and anxiety of the city, to my great surprise, quickly melted away. The difference between Cairo in the city and Cairo from afar, to a great extent, parallels the Clinic’s experiences with our Syria Project. Despite spending a year mapping international and domestic refugee law and policy in Egypt and the Middle East, what we learned when we arrived in Cairo was almost an entirely different story.

After the ousting of Mohamed Morsi, refugee policy in Egypt took a turn for the worse. The 2011 revolution had already created substantial obstacles for those seeking refuge in Egypt. However, Morsi’s administration was generally welcoming to Syrian refugees and permitted them broad access to public health services and education on an almost equal footing with Egyptians. At this time, Syrians did not fear detention nor deportation.

With Morsi out of the picture, a vicious xenophobic media campaign began characterizing Syrians and other foreigners as dangerous supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Eventually, changes in visa requirements for Syrians occurred and many refugees were detained for failing to register with the Egyptian government and trying to leave Egypt by boat to Italy. In detention, Syrians have been confined to cramped, dirty quarters inside municipal police stations. Policy changes in Egypt have been justified as “temporary emergency measures,” and have effectively closed off the borders to refugee populations.

In Cairo, we met with a group of attorneys from the Egyptian Foundation for Refugee Rights (EFRR) who represent many of the detainees. Since the media fiasco, the EFRR has been highly successful in winning both acquittals and orders of release for Syrians in detention. This success, however, has been curtailed by executive decisions of the Ministry of the Interior (MoI) to keep the refugees in detention for national security reasons.

The next day, we spoke with ambassadors at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). While the MFA works closely with the embassies of other countries concerning refugee issues, it does not manage border policy, refugee registration, or detention. The Ministry of the Interior, which does focus on those issues, unfortunately did not respond to our request for an interview. At our meeting with UNHCR’s Syria division, we discovered that UNHCR also has no access to the Ministry of the Interior, and many agencies have referred to the MoI as a black box when it comes to refugee policy.

Despite the many lamentable aspects of the refugee situation in Egypt, the goal of our project is not to criticize the front-line states.  International agreements concerning refugees contemplate the idea of responsibility sharing among states parties.  In other words, a refugee crisis is not the problem of any individual country or region, but of the international community at large. With the information we’ve gathered, the Clinic hopes to publish a report and submit it to the UNHCR Executive Committee and other agencies in the United States and the EU. We are not asking for action against Egypt or any other country, but for additional resources and resettlement slots from other states. We hope our report, in conjunction with the work of other organizations, helps make the push to greater access for refugees to durable solutions. Egypt is a struggling country with limited resources to dedicate to this influx of around 300,000 refugees. Now, the International Human Rights Clinic hopes other countries, including the United States, will lend greater support.

Hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving break, and good luck these next couple of weeks! Here’s a few photos from our trip.

Cairo from the rooftop of the terrace in our hotel:

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Out on the Nile:

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Old Cairo:

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Lamps for sale in the market:

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