The invisible Palestinians of Egypt Refugees face
discrimination, poverty and no access to basic services
Source: Daily Star (Beirut) - Opinion Section.
by Oroub El Abed
18 August 2003,
Palestinians in Egypt have been
living for the last 25 five years without any international
or national assistance or protection. Very little
is known about their status, especially that there
are no refugee camps hosting them. The Palestinians
as refugees in Egypt and their living situation has
not been a matter of concern in most of the literature,
neither for the PLO nor for people in Egypt as an
issue to draw attention to. To fill this gap, for
the last two years I have conducted research on the
Palestinians and their condition and livelihoods
in Egypt. Along with searching literature about what
has been written about those "forgotten Palestinians," we also conducted
a qualitative field study to collect vivid experiences from Palestinians
in Egypt about their daily struggles as refugees.
Palestinians in Egypt were estimated to be about 53,000 by the end of 2000,
according to the ambassador of Palestine to Egypt, Zuhdi al-Qudweh. Two main
reasons brought Palestinians to Egypt over the years. First, the two Palestinian-Israeli
wars of 1948 and 1967 brought Palestinians en masse to Egypt. They were put
in temporary camps in Egypt before being asked to either leave to Gaza -- when
possible -- or to settle in Egypt.
Second, socio-economic reasons, especially after Egypt administered the Gaza
Strip as of 1949, brought many Palestinians, mainly from Gaza, to work and
to be educated in Egypt. With time, and due to the 1967 war, they were unable
to return to Gaza and had to remain. Except for the unions supported by the
PLO, Palestinians are not seen as a community in the areas in which they live
in Egypt. They are dispersed in small numbers and assimilated in the main urban
governorates in Egypt, such as Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailieh, Port Said, Shariqieh
Qualyibieh, Rafah and Ariesh.
Until 1978, Palestinians in Egypt were treated on a par with nationals. They
were able to acquire education, even university degrees, secure employment
? even in the government ? and own property and land. Egypt's Palestinians
made up a good percentage of those working in the Gulf during the 1960s and
1970s, because of their high qualifications. During this period, Palestinians
were known as highly educated professionals; they worked in medicine, commerce,
engineering, teaching and management.
The Camp David peace accords and the killing of Youssef al-Sibai in 1978
by a Palestinian faction group of Abu Nidal al-Banna had a negative impact
on Egyptian policy toward Palestinians in Egypt, with newspapers in this
country orchestrating negative images. For example, some accused Palestinians
of "ingratitude," of
being responsible for their own situation by "selling their land," and referring
to them as the "economic Palestinian monsters" devouring the Egyptian economy.
Laws and regulations were amended to treat Palestinians as foreigners. Their
rights to free education, employment and even residency were taken away from
them. University education now has to be paid for in foreign currency. For
example, from 1965-1978, Palestinian students studying at universities had
numbered 20,000, but by 1985 the number had dropped to 4,500. Those enrolled
in public universities between the years 1997-1998 and 2000-2001 were 3,048.
Those who had established themselves earlier in the public and the private
sector were able to remain in their positions. Government employees or professionals,
such as doctors and lawyers, kept their posts. No new Palestinians were hired
by the state, however. With access to government jobs gone, they are left with
the private sector and the informal economy. The private sector requires skills,
which, without education, Palestinians are unable to obtain. It also requires
work permits, and in Egypt the number of "foreigners" may not exceed 10 percent
of the work force. Palestinians are forced to find work in such sectors as
driving trucks and taxis for others, bicycle repair shops, petty trade in commodities
such as used clothing on the street, and 'suitcase merchants' who take items
from various parts of Egypt to sell in Gaza ? but now even this trade has stopped
because of the intifada.
According to the field interviews with Palestinians dispersed in squatter
areas in Cairo, Sharqieh and Qualiubieh governorates, many of the Palestinians
are living far below the poverty line, since their income from informal sector
opportunities is very unstable.
The situation is better for the employees of the PLO, the Palestine Liberation
Army and current and former Egyptian government employees. They are ensured
regular income, and, later, a regular pension. In addition to the education
of their children, they are exempted from 90 percent of university fees.
Renewal of Palestinian residency permits in Egypt is conditional on paying
a fee and proving they have a reason to be here ? even though none of them
can go back to Palestine. Each must provide evidence of attending a school
or university, legal employment (a work contract), a business partnership with
an Egyptian, or marriage with an Egyptian woman, to mention a few. Lacking
any of these, they must have a bank statement showing they have $5000. As consequence
there are many Palestinians living illegally without residency in Egypt, and
they all risk being jailed or deported.
All Palestinians in Egypt have travel documents on which their residency
permits are stamped. Travel is also conditional; being out of the country
more than six months invalidates the residency in Egypt. If they want to
stay longer, they must apply for a re-entry permit which requires proof of
a work permit or student status elsewhere, and they can only remain out of
Egypt for one year at the most. Palestinians who return late are not permitted
to enter. Recently, such a case reported in the Al-Hayat Newspaper in November
2002 involved a student in Moscow who spent 14 months between the airports
of Egypt and Russia. Eventually, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR) helped him get asylum in Sweden.
Who protects the rights of Palestinians in Egypt? UNHCR is expected to protect
Palestinians who are outside UNRWA's areas of operation. However, due to an
Arab political decision, UNHCR has been hampered in protecting Palestinians.
The Arab League feared that Palestinians, if protected by UNHCR, would lose
their identity, and their cause would be diluted, particularly if UNHCR "resettled" them
to other countries.
As for national protection, Egypt and other Arab countries committed to grant
Palestinian refugees residence, and the right to work and travel, on the same
footing as their own citizens, when it signed the 1965 Arab League Casablanca
Protocol. From 1978, this commitment has not been upheld.
The general perception in the region has been that Palestinians in Egypt
have been treated like citizens. In fact, as our research has shown, they
have been invisible people of sorts, eeking out their living without the
attention of the international community.
Oroub El Abed, research associate at the Forced Migration
Refugee Studies Program at the American University in Cairo (www.aucegypt.edu/fmrs),
wrote this briefing for THE DAILY STAR. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.