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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 oroub@aucegypt.edu.

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