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AMERA’s New Year Plans in Egypt: Merge

December 26, 2013

Earlier this month, Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance’s Egypt program announced that it would merge with a younger Cairo-based organization, the Egyptian Foundation for Refugee Rights (EFRR).

One has to hope for the best. AMERA-Egypt has in many ways been the flagship of the movement to expand legal aid for refugees in global south, serving as a model for organizations in South America, the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia. But while it’s programs refugee rights programs have been pathbreaking, it has always been difficult for AMERA to develop a stable institutional foundation.

For the program now known as AMERA-Egypt, this will be the third major change in institutional structure since Prof. Barbara Harrell-Bond began having young lawyers and interns advise refugees in vacant American University in Cairo office buildings some 13 years ago.   Earlier this year AMERA sounded the alarm about a funding crisis.

EFRR and AMERA are describing the merger as an effort to build a “strong, unified” refugee rights organization. But a country as large as Egypt should easily be able to support multiple organizations. How many immigrant legal aid programs are there in New York or Los Angeles?

The root of the problem is familiar to human rights activists in less than democratic countries. While legal regulation of non-profits and charities in democracies is designed to foster a vibrant, responsible civil society, more repressive governments have learned that cumbersome regulations of NGOs can be a quiet, technocratic, and largely invisible means of keeping human rights and other opposition groups weak. This is exactly what Egypt has done.

EFRR and AMERA promise that services for refugees will not be interrupted. The idea is for AMERA to become a project of EFRR. But there are no guarantees, as AMERA’s own history illustrates. After leaving university confines in 2001, the nascent refugee legal aid program spent three years as a project of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. AMERA emerged when this marriage broke up in 2004.

Nevertheless, collaborations much like this one have proven successful in several other countries where refugee legal aid has taken root. The Refugee Legal Aid Project in Istanbul, one of the strongest such organizations anywhere, is a project of Helsinki Citizens Assembly, a larger human rights organization. As much as anything else, AMERA is a story of resiliency.

One thing I can say from experience: Every hour that organizational leaders are forced to spend on internal management problems is time taken away from building better programs for refugees. But despite a great deal of internal turmoil over the years, AMERA has always found a way to return to its mission. And that alone is reason to be optimistic.

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