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All eyes on Egypt

January 30, 2011

As the world watches the political upheaval in Egypt, it is worth remembering for a moment the tens of thousands of refugees who find tenuous refuge there.

The protests are about the relationship between the Egyptian people and their government. But Egypt also is a major first refuge for people fleeing persecution and war, from the Horn of Africa especially. Cairo is often cited as hosting one of the worlds largest populations of urban refugees.

For readers of RSDWatch, Egypt holds special importance because it has long been one of the largest sites of UNHCR mandate status determination, and has been a major incubator of refugee legal aid programs for the global south. Many refugee rights organizations – including Asylum Access (RSDWatch’s parent organization) – have been inspired by Cairo’s Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA), and many have been led by AMERA veterans. The manager and founder of RSDWatch, Michael Kagan, is a former AMERA director and teacher at the American University in Cairo.

Some refugees in Egypt are able to register with UNHCR, and obtain residence permits. But they are rarely permitted to work, depend extensively on the humanitarian aid for education and healthcare, and have often complained of police harassment and a high level of popular racism against Africans. In recent years, Egypt has also conducted mass deportations of asylum-seekers, especially to Eritrea. Asylum-seekers are often subject to indefinite detention and denied access to UNHCR. And many migrants have been shot by Egyptian forces while trying to cross the Sinai to Israel.

We have heard a few reports from refugees in Cairo. They were nervous, staying at home, and very worried about the violence and looting. These are just a few examples of the many things at stake as events in Egypt unfold.





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