Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Syrians Struggle to Find Refuge in Egypt

Tougher Egyptian visa rules make it even harder to leave Syria.
By Salam al-Saadi

Standing in the rain, hemmed in by cement blocks and military checkpoints, Syrians of all ages congregate around a closed door. This is the Egyptian embassy in the Damascus neighbourhood of Kfar Sousa.

Its door opens only to admit a few employees.

Some of those gathered are here to pick up visas to enter Egypt, while the rest are waiting for a response to their application or an explanation for why it was refused. The intercom on the embassy door transmits terse responses without allowing any applicants inside.

This is an experience shared by large numbers of Syrians affected by new visa procedures enforced by the Egyptian authorities on July 8, 2013, shortly after former president Mohammad Morsi was deposed.

His ousting was accompanied by a wave of incitement against Syrians, with Egyptian media outlets accusing them of involvement in the demonstrations and clashes that took place.

“My family has been in Egypt since the start of 2013. When I left my work in Damascus and decided to join them, Egypt closed its doors in my face,” said Shadi, a government employee in his thirties who quit his job in order to leave the country and be reunited with his family.

After much difficulty, Shadi was able to submit his visa application at the end of November. He is still waiting for a response.

“They changed the procedures even before the embassy reopened in Damascus,” he said. “We went back and forth for two months and they wouldn’t let us meet anyone. Each time they told us to come back later”.

A further problem, after the difficulty and the opacity of the procedures, is that in many cases, visa applications are refused without any clear reason. That is what happened to Damascus resident Qusay, 26, who is trying to follow his older brother to Egypt.

“A resident in Egypt must send you security clearance and an invitation to obtain a visa, as if we were travelling to Sweden,” he said.

Qusay does not understand the security concerns that led to his visa refusal. “My brother applied for security clearance for me twice… in Cairo, and both times I was refused,” he added.

These complications arose despite statements from the Egyptian foreign ministry in July that the decision on visas for Syrians was “related to the current temporary situation in Egypt”.

According to these statements, Syrians who reside or wish to reside in Egypt must “take into consideration the security situation of the country, and understand the nature of these procedures, which do not detract from the historic relationship between the two people”.

However, officials did nothing to allay Syrian fears amid the general unrest in Egypt.

“In the wake of former president Mohammad Morsi’s deposition, Syrians have kept to their homes and avoided passing by gatherings and demonstrations,” said Abu Raji, who has been in Cairo for a year-and-a-half. He adds that he escaped Syria with his family of three to avoid the many dangers that beset the Jobar suburb of Damascus where they lived.

“Our troubles did not leave us in Egypt. We live in fear of physical or verbal assault. It is now common to hear a curse or an insult wherever you are, just because you are Syrian,” he added.

“The security situation is tight and unnerving, and this is the first time we experience this here. We now have to show our passports and residency papers in many places. Those who don’t carry their papers with them are threatened with deportation, so they avoid going out,” he continued.

Abu Raji’s claims echo a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) which urged the Egyptian government to “stop arbitrarily detaining Syrians and threatening them with summary deportation without regard to necessary legal procedures.”

The organisation called on the authorities to “release the Syrian detainees unless they are promptly charged with a valid offence, and not deport Syrians with visas or asylum seekers without their claims being impartially reviewed”.

HRW also produced a short video of interviews with families of detained people in which they described how their relatives had been stopped at Egyptian checkpoints as they were returning home from work. They were allegedly detained for not carrying passports, but they were not released even after family members came to the checkpoint with the required documents.

Harassment of Syrians has led to an exponential increase in registrations with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. The agency provides Syrians with a yellow card identifying carriers as registered refugees, providing them with temporary protection.

In the period from September 2012 to March 2013, 2,000 Syrians had registered, but as the unrest worsened, the number spiked to around 80,000 by July 25. By October 19, the number had reached approximately 124,000.

Rights groups confirmed that the Egyptian authorities detained and deported Syrian refugees. Ghaith, 37, a Syrian who lived in Cairo for a year-and-a-half, spoke of his experience after he was deported to Turkey in October.

“Egyptian security officers detained me because my residency expired. They gave me the choice of either staying in prison or booking a ticket to Syria or Turkey,” he said. “The deportation decision was taken by state security under the pretext of violating residency laws. But I met a Syrian in prison whose family managed to renew his residency while he was still detained. Despite this, the Egyptian authorities refused to release him and he was deported with me to Turkey.”

Ghaith was not only deported from Egypt, but also separated from his wife and young daughter.

“We had been living in Egypt for over a year, relying on my work as an accountant in a contracting company. Today I am in Turkey looking for work while my family has returned to Syria. I look forward to seeing them as soon as I find work here.”

Recent newspaper reports have pointed to attempts by Syrian refugees to emigrate illegally to Europe, where they may land in prison.

But some Syrians in Egypt with residence papers, like Ahmad, 30, are living comfortably.

“The wave of animosity towards Syrians has abated,” said Ahmad, who left the Wa’er neighbourhood in Homs with his family in 2012 to move to Egypt. “It opened its doors to Syrians, and the cost of living here is cheap in comparison to other countries,” he said.

Ahmad lives with his family in October 6th City near Cairo, which houses the largest number of Syrian refugees in Egypt, and works at an Arabic pastry shop.

“The situation today, particularly in October 6th City, is very good. Syrians have opened their own places, and they are enrolling their children in Egyptian schools,” he said. 

This story was produced by the Damascus Bureau, IWPR’s news platform for Syrian journalists.