Hanan Adam arrived in Egypt as a refugee from Sudan five years ago. The 39-year-old lives with her seven children in 6th of October City and used to find work as a day laborer in various factories producing refrigerators and light bulbs before they started laying off Sudanese workers, she says. She took to cleaning houses instead. But now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, she is unable to find work anywhere.
“We haven’t worked since April, and we don’t have an allowance,” Adam says. She carries a yellow refugee registration card issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “I had an allowance from the UNHCR, but it was cut last December. They told us to redo the interview, but we’ve had no allowance since. Our situation is very bad and there’s no work because of the coronavirus. Even the food rations we get between the 15th and 21st of every month … I went to pick it up, but there’s no food this month.”
Adam’s son suffers from an illness that affects brain function and she was depending on medication provided by Caritas Egypt every month, but the NGO’s hospital is now closed because of the coronavirus. She cannot afford the monthly LE280 expense to treat him, even though the medication is just a temporary painkiller. The son needs surgery, which she was hoping to save up for because Caritas could not afford it, but with her loss of income those plans have also fallen through.
To further complicate matters, Adam also needs to look for a new home by the end of Ramadan. Over the past month, the Psycho-Social Services and Training Institute in Cairo helped her pay rent, but they recently told her they do not have the budget to pay next month’s rent, and the landlord wants the place back. Adam tried contacting the UNHCR several times to seek help, but no one responded. She went to the refugee agency’s office on the first day of Ramadan but the receptionist told her the office was not operating and that she should return the third week of Ramadan to submit a complaint.
Refugees, who primarily depend on support from international organizations — most notably, the UNHCR — are among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. In Egypt, most refugees have seen their substandard health and economic conditions turn into a crisis with the outbreak of the coronavirus.
By the end of 2018, there were 246,749 refugees registered with the UNHCR in Egypt, and 68,184 asylum seekers. They mostly come from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. According to a memorandum of understanding between the Egyptian government and UNHCR signed in 1954, the UN agency handles the registering, documenting and status of refugees in Egypt. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which Egypt signed, the UNHCR serves as the convention’s guardian and cooperates with states to ensure that the rights of refugees are respected and protected.
In 2014, the UNHCR website listed its various partners in Egypt, including the ministries of Interior, Health, Education, Foreign Affairs and Social Solidarity, as well as a raft of local and international NGOs. UNHCR also partners with related UN agencies.
Omar Abdel Wahed, a 32-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker, experienced the worst effects of substandard care when his wife died in March just a few months after giving birth.
“My wife gave birth on November 28, 2019 at Imbaba General Hospital. A day after we returned home, she had complications. When she wasn’t feeling well, I called the UNHCR. They told me that they’d call me back, but they didn’t. We spent three months going to emergency rooms every time she was sick. They’d either give her a pain killer or say there’s nothing wrong with her and make us leave,” Abdel Wahed says. “We went to Caritas, they gave us LE70 and told us to go to Qasr al-Ainy [Hospital]. The first time we went to Qasr al-Ainy, we stayed the entire day but they made us leave at the end of it. We went again when she was sick at the end of February. They did a clean-up operation because the incision during childbirth was stitched without proper cleaning. But on her third day at the hospital, she was sicker, and they hooked her up to oxygen. The ventilator wasn’t working, so I called the UNHCR. They told me that there isn’t anything they can do. My wife died the same day.”
Before his wife’s death, all Abdel Wahed received to help pay for medical care was LE1,500 for childbirth expenses at the end of February, which he received from Caritas, in addition to the meager LE70 he received when his wife fell ill. Meanwhile, UNHCR called one week after his wife died only to ask for burial documents in order to remove her from its registration rolls.
Abdel Wahed has two other children in addition to the newborn. He has been unable to find part-time work at a cafe since he broke his hand in December and cannot afford the surgery to properly heal. He was forced to sell his late wife’s jewelry to pay for his share of the rent for an apartment in Bulaq Dakrur. When he called the UNHCR on April 8 to explain his dire situation, they told him to “go work.” His Sudanese and Eritrean neighbors are his only source of aid right now.
Refugees in Egypt, among the most vulnerable of communities, have seen their meager sources of income vanish over the past few months as much of the country has shut down.
Amal*, a 40-year-old Eritrean who came to Egypt in 2019, lost her home after the fiber factory where she worked was closed on February 21. She and her son were evicted from their apartment in Fasial a few days later because she was late on rent.
“An Egyptian woman affiliated with a charity organization offered me a storeroom under a staircase in Giza to stay in. But the storeroom is very small, and we can’t sit in it. And we keep cleaning it because the entire building’s sewage falls there,” Amal says. “When I tried to sterilize it, my son and I almost suffocated. He got very sick because the place is small and there’s no ventilation. He has nasopharyngeal cancer, so I took him to the hospital when he got sick.”
Amal carries a UNHCR white card, which means that she is yet to be registered as an asylum seeker. Yet her card expired in April and she says that the UNHCR offices have been closed, so she has been unable to renew it. Eight of Amal’s nine children are in Sudan, where she lived in a refugee camp before coming to Egypt. Her plan with smugglers was to cross into Egypt with one son and then smuggle the others over. But a month after arriving, her son was diagnosed with cancer. She spent all her savings on treatment and has been unable to reunite her family.
Amal showed her son’s medical reports to Caritas. They interviewed her, but she did not receive any aid from them. When she tried to register for a UNHCR allowance they told her: “We’ll see if you deserve it.” After she was evicted from her home, she called UNHCR again only to be told her complaint had been moved up the aid department. She is unable to get a food coupon from Caritas because she still isn’t officially registered. She now depends on charity to treat her son and provide for their basic needs.
The crisis is real. Refugees must qualify under certain conditions in order to receive aid from various organizations, but the situation now is becoming increasingly grave.
The president of the Eritrean Refugee Committee in Egypt, Abdel Rahman Ali, says that UNHCR is not responding to the crisis. He says he tries to give information on families in need to the Red Crescent and is always in contact with UNHCR but has yet to receive a response. “People are hungry at home, they’re living under the threat of eviction. Some take monthly medications,” Ali says. “Organizations are closed, and they don’t even pick up the hotlines.”
Marco Ding, a refugee from South Sudan who is now a priest at the Ain Shams Anglican Church, also points to the gravity of the situation. He says refugees have no work, are unable to afford sanitation or hygiene products, and have been hard-pressed to find food since the lockdown measures began. Many Sudanese and South Sudanese refugees work cleaning homes or retail stores, both of which have suspended work. “They’re employees and they just stayed home,” Ding says, adding that many refugees are going hungry and living under the threat of eviction.
Rasha Maaty, the executive director of the Fard Foundation, an Egyptian civil society organization, says refugees — especially Syrian and Sudanese people — are day laborers working mostly at restaurants and factories. With restaurants shut and factories operating with reduced shifts, many refugees find themselves with no work. Other refugees work as teachers at special, communal schools, which have closed and suspended teachers’ salaries. Those that did have an income — even if it was sporadic — were not listed in UNHCR’s aid programs. With that income gone, they are unable to apply for aid from UNHCR because the offices are largely closed to them amid the pandemic. The combined result is a loss of income for many refugee families, Maaty says, along with the threat of eviction.
Refugees face different challenges depending on their status within UNHCR: whether they are registered, still seeking asylum, or have had their refugee claims rejected and are considered undocumented immigrants, according to Ibrahim Awad, the director of the American University in Cairo’s Center for Migration and Refugee Studies. Undocumented immigrants often face the most difficult scenario because their cases are closed and they cannot receive aid from UNHCR. They are compelled to work in the informal economy in poor conditions and often live in poverty in densely populated areas. Even though many Egyptian citizens face the same conditions, undocumented immigrants often lose their jobs first. Since they have no official papers they cannot obtain even the bare minimum of health care because they fear going to hospitals. They also are not eligible for any government aid. Undocumented immigrants can’t receive even the laughable cash handouts provided to informal Egyptian laborers, Awad says.
During a pandemic, even refugees and asylum seekers find themselves compelled to work in the informal sector, Awad says. Even though registered refugees have the legal right to work, they still need to obtain a permit — a difficult prospect in a climate in which many have lost their jobs. It is difficult for them to afford masks, protective equipment or medicine, Awad says. The one positive measure, he says, was the decision to open hospitals to refugees who have contracted the virus.
“There’s hunger at home and coronavirus on the streets,” Gabriel Ring says, describing his current situation during the pandemic. A 50-year-old asylum seeker from South Sudan, Ring works part-time as an English teacher at a school for Sudanese refugees in Ain Shams, where he lives. He also works as a translator at a private institute. He has been unable to find work since February and now he, his wife and their seven children have no income whatsoever. “We are lucky if we find one meal per day,” Ring says. “Now, I also have a rent problem. I didn’t pay the rent for April and if the landlord hadn’t been cooperative, I would be on the streets. But I don’t know how I’ll pay the water and electricity bills that are piling up.”
Ring and his family have been living in Egypt since October 2016. The family does not receive any financial or medical aid from the UNHCR or its partners even though he registered with the World Food Program to obtain a food aid coupon. He also applied to Caritas for medical aid for his daughter, who suffers from a calcium deficiency, for himself, to get knee surgery, and for his wife, to get a hemorrhoidectomy.
Ring says the only aid he receives is from Catholic Relief Services, which pays for half of his children’s school tuition, and he once received aid to pay rent for a month last year from the Psycho-Social Services and Training Institute in Cairo. “Two weeks ago, I called the UNHCR for aid, just enough for food for the kids. They said they would get back to me,” he says. “Later, one of their lawyers called and asked about my situation, but he didn’t get back to me. An Egyptian doctor who learned of my situation was the one who helped me. He sent me a pack of rations through the Anglican Church in Ain Shams.”
Souad*, a 30-year-old asylum-seeker from Syria, has been living in Sheikh Zayed for three years with her husband and two children. In mid-March, Souad and her husband lost their sources of income through the part-time work they had. The school for Syrian refugees where Souad works closed in the middle of the academic term. Meanwhile, her husband works as an electrician on a day-to-day basis and has not had any work for the past month. “My and my son’s passports expired last July and renewing them costs US$700. My husband’s residence permit is expired and he doesn’t have LE150 to renew it,” Souad says.
“We’ve been greatly impacted. We haven’t paid the electricity bill for three months. We’re LE3,000 in debt. We don’t receive any aid from UNHCR. My husband’s work barely covers the rent and bills, but it doesn’t cover food, drink and clothes. If you come to see our house, you won’t find any furniture. We also have a son with special needs,” she says.
She says they filed reports to UNHCR and Save the Children several times, especially because her husband has an eye injury from the war, but they have not received any compensation. They only received aid for the winter from UNHCR last year. They also receive educational aid, which only covers two-thirds of her children’s transportation expenses. It does not cover tuition fees for the private schools they are attending after they had to leave public schools because the dialect was too difficult for them.
“UNHCR is unfair and the situation is quite difficult. Newer refugees are in a tough situation, the older ones have it better. Folks who left Syria long ago, before the war, took off with their money. We left penniless. I don’t know on what basis of evaluation the UNHCR works. Personal connections also run the show. We don’t know anyone, so we don’t get aid,” says Souad.
In February 2019, well before the pandemic, UNHCR said that its essential support programs for refugees in Egypt were under severe pressure, due to a combination of increasing arrivals and inadequate resources. “These refugees require timely and adequate humanitarian assistance,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “Yet, right now we are unable to provide them with the bare essentials or maintain our core refugee protection programs in this country.”
The report said that UNHCR is operating with only four percent of its annual US$104.2 million budget for its operations in the country.
Maaty, the executive director of the Fard Foundation, says UNHCR’s situation in Egypt mirrors a loss of financial resources for all UN agencies worldwide. Reducing shifts and decreasing the number of employees during the pandemic while refugees are increasingly desperate for help has severely slowed the agency’s response. Yet some workarounds have succeeded, Maaty says, pointing out that several refugees with whom she works have received their monthly financial aid from UNHCR through the post office instead of having to pick it up directly. She also says that the World Food Program has disbursed two months’ worth of food aid in the form of cash instead of coupons so that beneficiaries can purchase food from anywhere, not just from specifically designated stores as before.
Awad, the director of the American University in Cairo’s Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, also points to the lack of resources as the fundamental problem. He says that UNHCR operates with a low budget that does not cover all its employees and that the funding it receives is far less than its needs. Therefore, they have a crisis when it comes to meeting refugee needs for health, housing and treatment. He says there is currently immense pressure and insufficient resources. According to Awad, state contributions to the UNHCR are voluntary: even the 1951 agreement on refugees is a voluntary one.
“It’s not that the UNHCR has the money and is hiding it,” Awad says. “The problem is structural and there could be problems in execution. It’s a complicated issue that requires a complicated solution. Perhaps the current crisis reflects the necessity of restructuring the international community.”
Ali, the president of the Eritrean Refugee Committee in Egypt, continues to contact the UNHCR to no avail, even though he says the agency gave extraordinary allowances to refugees from other countries. He says UNHCR has information on all refugees, yet the World Food Program asked them to register through a special online link to obtain food. So far, no one in the Eritrean refugee community has received any food packs.
Ding, the South Sudanese priest, is more cynical. “The UNHCR is here in Egypt just in name. Refugees are supposed to be its responsibility. It did not get involved when Gabriel Tut was murdered, or in any similar incident,” Ding says. “The UNHCR doesn’t know anything about people who have problems with their residency permits, or people who were deported from Egypt. The UN itself supports the war in South Sudan. We don’t want the UN in South Sudan or here. We’re here because Egypt is our country, not because of the UN, which didn’t do anything for us or for the Syrian, Palestinian and Libyan refugees.”
Leaders of refugee communities are trying to help in the face of this crisis. Ali manages a charity organization called Rowad al-Rahman (Champions of the Merciful). He tries to offer general support to the Eritrean refugee community, sometimes in coordination with Egyptian charity organizations. He says the problem is that some of these organizations have stopped helping refugees, and that the food packs he tries to distribute are not enough. The Fard Foundation, which Maaty runs, also helps those in need right now, including Egyptians and refugees. Through tithes, offerings and church donations, Reverend Ding distributes packs of food, medication and disinfectants among the Sudanese and South Sudanese refugee communities. He also tries to raise awareness among refugees about the virus and how to protect against it, especially among those who do not speak Arabic.
Refugee communities have also tried to form emergency committees amid the crisis. According to Ding, there are 10 refugee communities from South Sudan divided based on the state they come from. In each one, community leaders try to help as much as possible.
Rebecca Alwell, a 45-year-old South Sudanese refugee, heads the emergency committee for the South Sudanese community from Aweil. “With the coronavirus crisis, the community is thinking of the immense hardships refugees are facing because of present circumstances.,” she says. “We divide up the stuff we have. If someone has something extra, they give it to those in need. We coordinate with Reverend Marco [Ding] to buy things we lack and distribute them to those in need. The problem is that food packs don’t last a day.” Alwell tries to help refugees living under the threat of eviction through her committee, whether by negotiating with landlords or collecting donations to cover rent.
The problem is that Alwell herself is suffering with her seven children because she is out of work as a house cleaner. Even though she registered with the World Food Program, she did not receive food aid for April until the beginning of May, and the medical and financial aid she received from Caritas stopped three years ago.
Awad says that governments take care of their citizens, while non-citizens miss out on benefits. He says for humanitarian purposes, the Egyptian government should pay informal refugee workers an allowance of LE500, as it does with citizens. In general, Awad thinks countries should offer opportunities for education, training and work to immigrants and refugees. In terms of public health, caring for everyone’s health is important because disease does not differentiate between people.
Awad notes that in the face of immense pressure on the public health sector, some European countries have allowed refugees with medical and nursing skills to work in their hospitals. He also suggested a possible solution could involve a joint approach by the government, Egyptian civil society, and concerned Egyptian and international organizations to meet the basic needs of refugees without discrimination through aid from donor countries. Awad notes that such a move would be good for Egypt’s image in terms of foreign policy.
Mada Masr contacted the UNHCR’s media office in Egypt for an interview. The only response we received was from an associate external relations officer, who said: “We have received your inquiry about the status of refugees during the coronavirus crisis. We will respond at the nearest opportunity given the present circumstances.”
*Names have been changed as per the request of the interviewee.