Refugees in Egypt: Sisi’s political trump card

The Egyptian officials have highlighted growing refugee numbers in Egypt. In 2016, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi stated at the G20 summit that Egypt hosts over five million refugees and migrants. Then in 2020, Al-Sisi put the number of Syrian refugees and migrants in Egypt at 500,000. The figures declared contradict the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency), which registers just about 265,000 asylum-seekers and refugees in Egypt. In addition, the Egyptian government itself estimated the number of Syrian refugees in Egypt in 2013 at 250,000-300,00 and there is no apparent reason to suppose that they doubled since.

It is understood that the UNHCR does not register all refugees. Still, the Egyptian officials have a clear tendency to double the accurate figures, as the regime used to use immigration as a card in its foreign policies. In 2016, Egypt’s Assistant Foreign Minister, Hesham Badr, blamed the EU-Turkish deal on immigrants and refugees for a spike in migrants and refugees in Egypt. “You see what has happened as a result of the deal with Turkey,” he told MEPs in the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, “The closing of the Balkan route and … the pressure has increased on Egypt.” Badr requested EU support to accommodate the spike, like the support given to Turkey.

Financial aid was not the only way the Egyptian government sought to use the refugees. Last July, the Minister of Water Resources and Irrigation, Mohamed Abdel-Ati, warned Europe of increasing illegal migration if the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was completed and operated without a deal with Egypt. “Egypt is one of the driest countries in the world,” he said, adding that this lack of water would lead to an explosion of illegal migration to Europe.

Thus, Al-Sisi and his administration attempt to use the refugees and migration issue as cards in their dialogue with Europe. During a visit to Cairo in 2018, the head of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (FRONTEX), Fabrice Leggeri, praised Egypt’s role as one of the leading partners of the EU in the region, especially regarding hindering illegal immigration. Leggeri hailed the efforts of the Egyptian military’s border guards to stop illegal immigration.

Accordingly, Al-Sisi attempts to buy European silence on his human rights crimes with his role as a watchman against illegal migration. During the V4 summit in Budapest last October, Al-Sisi played the refugee card responding to human rights critiques against his regime and raising his economic requests. “Are European countries willing to contribute to improving these countries political, economic, and possibly cultural conditions to arrive at a different approach to human rights, which is always a controversial issue between our European friends and us?” he asked.

Egypt’s cruelty to refugees

Al-Sisi has been keen to show particular interest in accommodating refugees and respecting them. For example, in December 2019, after a video on social media showed a Sudanese student bullied by Egyptian teenagers, Al-Sisi hosted John during the International Youth Forum and gave him a seat beside him in the first row. Such scenes cover the real hardships faced by the refugees in Egypt.

The economic reform programme adopted by the Egyptian government doubled refugees’ financial needs. In 2019, Reuters quoted Laurent De Boeck, the head of the International Organisation of Migration in Egypt, who said “We believe it’s a consequence of economic reforms and the cut of gas subsidies, which has led to an increase in basic goods costs.” Aside from the economic hardships, refugees in Egypt face rising right-wing xenophobia among the regime’s supporters, who consider the refugees’ competitors to jobs and business and a burden on their countries’ scarce resources. Moreover, after the 2013 military coup, the regime’s propaganda depicted the Syrian refugees as supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and accused them of helping terrorism in Syria. The same propaganda was used during Mubarak’s mandate against the African refugees, who held a sit-in in Cairo. As a result, Egyptian police forcibly broke up the set-in, killing 25 and injuring dozens more.

Most recently, Egypt started to deport Eritrean refugees back to Asmara after the regime established intimate relations with Asmara’s government. According to the Refugee Platform in Egypt, the Egyptian authorities began to arrest Eritrean asylum seekers on the Egyptian borders, and eight Eritrean asylum seekers were deported despite the risk of torture and imprisonment they face upon their return.