The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Migrants in post-revolution Egypt

Syrian refugee Abdel Nasser prepares platters of rotisserie chicken at a small outdoor restaurant in a suburb of Cairo. (Scott Nelson/The Washington Post)

Images of migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea by boat from North Africa to Europe were rampant in 2014. Most news stories reporting on this topic either focused on the dangerous and sometimes tragic journey itself, or the response of European countries to migrants who reached their shores. But what about those migrants or refugees who chose not to flee by boat and instead remained in host states such as Egypt?

Egypt is a major receiver of migrants and refugees from the Horn of Africa and other Arab states. Although the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ official number of registered refugees in Egypt is about 250,000, the Egyptian government’s count is closer to 350,000, in addition to about 1 million migrants. Compared to the 8 million Egyptian emigrants abroad, this number is relatively small, but that does not mean that migrants and refugees fly under the government’s radar. “Of course we know about them,” one government official told me. “We let them stay. Even those without papers or who come illegally.” Why would the Egyptian government allow this?

This is a question with broad implications. Since the 1990s, new immigration and border controls have made accessing Western states increasingly difficult for regular and irregular migrants, with controls sometimes extending beyond the state. European governments have been pressuring countries in the Middle East and North Africa to bolster border security to curb illegal migration. This has included enhanced policing, fortified fences and walls, joint patrols in international waters, and readmission agreements.

Despite these barriers, migrants and refugees continue to leave their home states, although few are able to reach Europe or their desired destination countries because of the prohibitive cost, potential danger or limited resettlement spots for refugees. Furthermore, refugees and migrants tend not to return home because the price of a return journey via the same migratory route is often too high or opportunities are too limited in a migrant’s home country. As a result, many migrants and refugees choose the best available solution: remaining in a transit state for an indefinite period of time.

But what happens to migrants and refugees who end up effectively stuck in host states, and how do the host states react to them? As Claire Adida acknowledged in an earlier Monkey Cage post, we know very little about the fate of migrants in developing countries. This is despite the fact that slightly more than half the world’s migration takes place between developing countries, not from developing country to Western country.

The academic literature asserts that host countries have three policy options regarding the treatment of migrants on their territories: assimilation, accommodation and exclusion. This conceptualization leaves out the possibility of state ambivalence. Developing states, not bound by the same migration paradigm as their European and North American counterparts, sometimes choose to simply ignore migrants, particularly those who did not enter their territory through formal channels.

That is how Egypt has approached the problem. Government officials, NGO leaders, and individual migrants and refugees of various nationalities with whom I met noted this policy of ambivalence. When asked to characterize the Egyptian government’s treatment of refugees and migrants, the director of an international NGO said that the Egyptian state “wants to do as little as possible. It knows they’re there of course, but it doesn’t want to expend the effort to do anything with them. So it just turns a blind eye.” This mentality was confirmed by other NGOs that offer quintessential services such as legal aid, schooling, health care, psycho-social services or community meeting spaces to refugees and migrants.

Ambivalence does not mean unawareness. In addition to being aware of the migrants and refugees themselves, the government knows about the presence and activities of these migrant-focused organizations. In a somewhat chilling story, the director of one of the 57 refugee schools in Cairo said that in August 2013, the morning of the Rabaa massacre, he received a phone call from the Ministry of Interior warning him not to open the school that day because of impending unrest. The school is unregistered with the government, and Egyptian authorities had never previously contacted the director. “I laughed,” the director told me, “because I had actually been overseas and I had just changed my phone number only three days earlier, but they managed to get straight to me, on my mobile.” Although the government is highly aware that a large migrant and refugee service sector exists, it has little incentive to interfere with the activities of organizations that are willing to provide services that the government might otherwise have to provide.

Refugees and migrants also often provide economic benefits to host countries. In a country such as Egypt, which has a large informal economy, some migrants and refugees have found jobs in the garment, food, artisanal and industrial sectors, in addition to others who do domestic work in wealthy Egyptian households as cleaners, nannies and drivers. Egyptian landlords also know they can charge migrants and refugees inflated rental prices. A Sudanese migrant told me that Egyptian simsars (housing brokers) will size up migrants or refugees based on nationality and show them neighborhoods accordingly. Alluding to this informal system, the Sudanese migrant noted, “They know each type of customer, they know how much they have in their pocket.” Yet another benefit mentioned by a representative from the International Organization for Migration are remittances from the Persian Gulf region, Europe and North America to migrants and refugees living in Egypt who then spend the money locally.

Finally, the policy of ambivalence helps Egypt on the international level. Refraining from mass deportations allows Egypt to assert that it is fulfilling its various international commitments, a claim that the government can use as a bargaining chip in advocating for the welfare of Egyptian emigrants residing in Western countries.

There are two major exceptions to the non-interference approach. The first is when the Egyptian government considers a particular migrant or refugee group to be a security threat. Syrian refugees were in this unfortunate position after a coup d’etat on June 30, 2013. Ethiopian refugees and migrants in Egypt also faced scrutiny when the Egyptian and Ethiopian governments came to a head over an Ethiopian dam project in spring 2013.

The other exception is if an organization crosses the line from service provision to advocacy. As a government official said, “We differentiate between political organizations that deal with human rights, solely human rights, and organizations that deal with social welfare and economic prosperity for migrants and refugees.” The Egyptian NGO scene is in crisis, and in fall 2014 all organizations were issued a mandate requiring them to register with the Ministry of Solidarity, which would then have the right to approve all organizational activities in advance. Individuals from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) who work on migrant rights issues in Alexandria, told me they had received threats from the Ministry of Interior regarding their advocacy work. EIPR originally criticized the registration process, although the group recently announced it would apply for registration.

What are the chances that the Egyptian government will move beyond a policy of ambivalence toward actual integration for migrants and refugees residing in Egypt? The prospect seems bleak. Many refugees and migrants described the increasing difficulty of obtaining a residency permit in Egypt. An Eritrean refugee told me, “Before the revolution [the permit] was for one year or even more, but after the revolution it’s always for six months.” When I asked a government official whether the state would consider lengthening this time period, the official said, “Extending it toward one year or more means that the government may be responsible for normalizing the situation of refugees and migrants, without being equipped by international help in this regard.” In Egypt’s post-revolutionary security state, ambivalence remains the migration policy option of choice.

Kelsey P. Norman is a doctoral candidate in the political science department at the University of California at Irvine. Her dissertation research focuses on Middle East and North African states as countries of migrant settlement.