Master Political Science Paper
Title: Palestinian: The forgotten Refugees of Egypt
1. How and why have the policies and rights towards Palestinian refugees in Egypt changed since 1948 (Use attached articles and other relevant ones).
2. Analyze the current legal status of Palestinian refugees in Egypt and the challenges the face (Use attached articles and other relevant ones).
3. Determine possible future policy changes with the newly elected government (president Mohamed Morsi). Use these and other related articles:
4. Suggestions: Proposal for shared responsibility. Use this article and other relevant information:
“Shared responsibility in a new Egypt, a strategy for refugee protection”: Michael Kagan-September 2011. Page 39-43. Find at:
Palestinian: The forgotten Refugees of Egypt
- How and why have the policies and rights towards Palestinian refugees in Egypt changed since 1948
Throughout the 20th century, Egypt has been viewed as a place where many refugee populations easily find exile. Moreover, Egypt’s capital, Cairo, has historically been viewed as a cosmopolitan city that attracts people of diverse backgrounds from around the world. During the early 20th century, the country became home to many Armenians who were feeling massacre in the hands of Ottomans. After 1948, Egypt became home to Palestinian refugees. Additionally, after 1983, Sudanese refugees started entering the country.
One of the largest refugee populations in Egypt comprises of Palestinians. According to Grabska, the number of Palestinian refugees in Egypt ranges between 50,000 and 70,000 (12). Between 1950s and 1960s, Cairo was also hosting exiles coming from movements that were spearheading liberation-related activities across the Middle East and Africa. During the 1990s, Egypt started experiencing another influx of refugees, this time from the Horn of Africa region, particularly Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan.
Indeed, Egypt is considered one of the few countries in the region that continue to enjoy social, economic, and political stability. However, as the refugee population continues to grow, it becomes increasingly difficult for adequate living conditions to be secured for them in Egypt. One of the durable solutions that the Egypt government has been supporting is that of resettling them to another country. This explains why a large number of Egyptian refugees have been resettled to Canada, Australia, Finland, and USA since the early 1990s.
However, it is evident that the policies and rights towards Palestinian refugees in Egypt have changed a great deal since 1948. It is important to find out how and why these policies and rights have been changing in such a significant manner. First of all, the residency status of Palestinian refugees has been a matter of uncertainty, not just in Egypt but also in other Arab countries. This has constituted a major obstacle that Palestinian refugees in Egypt face in the establishment of their civil rights. There is a lack of a proper legislation that clearly defines and regulates their status.
Moreover, the affairs of Palestinians are governed by administrative orders and ministerial decrees. In such a governance strategy, there is ample room for abuse of power and different interpretations. Moreover, as Zureik points out, such decrees and administrative orders tend to be reversed with relative ease in response to changes in political conditions in Egypt (11).
When Palestinians were dispersed in 1948, they were effectively deprived of citizenship, which is a basic right. Arab states, Egypt included, have a tradition of denying full residency status to all foreigners. They are denied both naturalization rights and the permission to remain in the country indefinitely. The same case applies to the foreigners’ progenies. Both birth and prolonged stay in Egypt are not regarded as valid grounds on which to claim nationality or residency. Even marriage to a female Egyptian citizen is no sufficient ground for special residency rights of naturalization either for the Palestinian or the children.
Peled indicates that very few Palestinian refugees in Egypt have succeeded in obtaining citizenship (141). Those who have managed to obtain it are mainly from the families who had already settled in Egypt prior to 1948. The only major benefit the refugees have obtained in Egypt in terms of recognition is the issuance of special Refugee Documents (RDs). However, even RDs do not guarantee the refugees a secure residency status. For example, even those RD holders who have been born in Egypt or who have been living there almost their entire lives are not automatically assured that they can reenter the country in case they decide to leave. Every RD holder must renew his visa within intervals ranging from six months to three years. The interval varies depending on the RD’s category. RD holders whose return visas expire in the course of their sojourn abroad should expect to be refused entry.
Choucri indicates that until the late 1970s, Palestinian RD holders used to enjoy certain privileges in Egypt (429). However, since then, the Egyptian government has revoked these privileges. For instance, visa renewals are no longer done free of charge. The RD holder started being viewed as just any other foreigner. Before having his visa renewed, he had to prove that he had changed money and spent not less than $180 monthly per family. Those who do not comply with this requirement risk deportation.
In fact, according to El-Abed, Palestinian refugees in Egypt have since 1978 been receiving no assistance from the Egyptian government and are denied access to all the country’s public services. (17) This situation is complicated by the fact that Palestinians are also denied all forms of protection and assistance from UN bodies that are responsible for addressing refugee issues. One of the reasons for this lack of commitment on the part of Egypt and the UN is that their legal status as refugees is shroud in ambiguity. This has affected the refugees’ livelihoods in numerous ways. Moreover, it renders their residence in Egypt insecure and sometimes even illegal.
According to Zohry, political events in Egypt since 1948 have greatly influenced the policies put in place to address the problems of Palestinian refugees (12). One of these problems is the fear among Palestinians that their properties would be occupied if they went back to Palestine. In the first place, though, war in Palestine and geographical proximity of Palestine and Egypt were the main factors that had brought Palestinians to Egypt. Moreover, the fact that many Palestinians had many professional and social ties with Egyptians made it easy for them to seek shelter in various cities and towns within Egypt.
The government of Gamal Abdel Nasser created numerous policies that were of great benefit to Palestinians. In fact, it is because of those policies that Palestinians were being treated in the same way as Egyptians. According to Brand, this explains why the Egyptian state had been offering them national protection until 1978 (38). However, changing political events together with the stances that both Palestinian and Egyptian political leaders took regarding the peace process greatly affected the way Palestinian refugees in Egypt were treated.
During the 1950s, the Egyptian president was very helpful to Palestinian refugees. After the economic situation inside Gaza deteriorated as a result of war, President Nasser called on those Palestinians with either high school or university education to work in the public sector in Egypt. Badran notes that more than 5,000 Palestinians seized this opportunity and subsequently joined the Egyptian civil service (57). During the 1967 war, Egypt prevented Palestinians from going back to Palestine. Moreover, President Nasser accepted to host thousands of civilian and military Palestinians who had arrived into Egypt because of the impact of the war.
A major problem is that all Egyptian governments have been using decrees instead of laws in addressing issues affecting refugees. One such decree was issued in 1992. It stated that Palestinian children whose parents work with the Egyptian government in the Egyptian military, in the public sector, or are retired, have a right to free education in state-owned schools. In 2000, another decree was issued by the Minister of Education, in which the 1992 decree was extended to cover other refugees. Such decrees create confusion during the implementation process. Moreover, numerous challenges arise during the interpretation of the decrees at lower administrative levels.
Until 1967, many Palestinians from Gaza had been benefiting from lack of restrictions during entry into Egypt. In fact they were living under Egyptian trusteeship. However, between 1967 and 1994, the trusteeship was limited to medical patients who had special permission and students. In all these examples, it is evident that the political process in Egypt had a far-reaching impact on the rights of Palestinian refugees. Moreover, these examples demonstrate how the policies and rights towards these refugees have been changing since 1948. The political realities in Egypt have had a far-reaching impact on the way the problem of Palestinian refugees is addressed.
Although Egypt has all along been demonstrating generosity as far as the issue of opening up its borders to Palestinians is concerned, room for maneuver regarding refugees’ rights and responsibilities has been limited. This is particularly the case on the issue of local integration. The government’s core policy has been the provision of temporary residence to refugees pending either repatriation or resettlement. Repatriation and resettlement are considered by the Egyptian government to be the most durable solutions to the problem.
- Analysis of the current legal status of Palestinian refugees in Egypt and the challenges they face
Palestinian refugees lack international recognition. For this reason, they depend largely on the legal systems of the states that accord them humanitarian assistance, for example Egypt. The national law in host countries is of great significance for Palestinian refugees. This is because legal status is a key determinant of whether or not their rights and freedoms are realized. According to Shiblak, this essentially means that without a legal status in Egypt, the refugees do not have the “right to enjoy rights” (39).
Since 1960, Egypt has been undertaking the issuance of the so-called “Egyptian Travel Documents for Palestinian Refugees”. The validity of these documents has been five years. However, this validity is contingent on the decision by the government to renew the refugee’s residence permit. Moreover, the requirements for renewal vary depending on the refugee’s year of arrival. For instance, those who arrived before 1948 have their documents every five years. However, a refugee can have his document after years on condition that he is able to show proof of continuous residence in the country for ten years. For those who came to Egypt in 1956 and 1967, renewal is done every five years. Palestinians who came to Egypt after 1967 have to renew their documents every three years. However, this duration may vary depending on the conditions imposed upon entry into Egypt.
In other words, Palestinian refugees currently in Egypt are accorded illegal status as far as citizenship and residency issues are concerned. This is a humiliating situation that they have to learn to live with. It is unfortunate that the refugees are unable to go back to Palestine owing to its occupation. This situation is made worse by the fact that they cannot be granted residence in Egypt unless they provide a reason for their decision to remain in the country. Some of the reasons commonly given include marriage to an Egyptian, licensed work, education, and business partnership with Egyptian citizens. Moreover, the refugee must be provided with an official document containing proof that the refugee is currently living in Egypt for one of the aforementioned reasons.
The refugees with the fewest problems in the process of renewing residence permits are those have already worked with the country’s government or are currently working there. The same case applies to those who have worked in the Office of the Governor in Gaza. All they need is for their employer to provide a letter that proves employment or renewal for renewal to be facilitated. Meanwhile, very few Palestinians have the privilege of working in such positions. The majority of them work in the informal sector, have not work permits, and have not stable jobs. For those refugees who perform unlicensed or illegal work, one easy route to the renewal of a residency document is the acquisition of a tax driver’s license. This license is easy to obtain. All these problems are caused by the illegal status of the Palestinian refugees in Egypt.
A major concern for many Palestinian refugees, though, is the renewal of young men’s permits. It is easy for them to be deported upon attaining the age of 18 in case they have already dropped out of school for inability to pay the school fees in private schools. This is because, as foreigners, the refugees are denied the right to Egypt’s free school education. A similar risk of deportation is posed to even those who attain the age of 21 or have graduated from university and are unable to find licensed work. For such people, the only option is to live illegally until they are able to provide the Egyptian authorities with a reason for their continued stay in the country. If one is not able to justify his continued stay, the last option is to produce a bank statement that shows a balance of not less than 20,000 Egyptian pounds.
The illegal status of Palestinians living in Egypt poses a risk not only to them in their individual capacities but also to their children. For example, the residence permit of a child depends on the parent, who acts as the guarantor. If the parent has no residence permit, it becomes impossible for the child to get the permit. For many Palestinian young refugees, one of the means of legalizing their stay in Egypt is getting married early to Egyptian citizens. This way, the young Palestinians get guarantors who can legalize their continued stay in the country.
The Egyptian law allows an Egyptian man to naturalize his Palestinian spouse as well as her children. This is because the law stipulates that the children and wives of an Egyptian man are automatically considered to be Egyptians by nationally. However, women who enter into marriage with Palestinian refugees are prohibited from doing the same thing.
In September 2003, the immediate former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak formed a committee to amend the law to create a provision that created a provision for the naturalization of the children of Egyptian women. However, this amendment excluded Egyptian women who were in marriages with Palestinian men from transferring their nationality to any of their children. Moreover, a major concern for poor Palestinian families who do not have any regular income is fees demanded during the renewal of the residency permit. In case any delays occur in the renewal process, the Palestinians are threatened with hefty fines.
It is evident that statelessness on the part of Palestinians creates a major obstacle in their efforts to enjoy even the most basic of human rights. By virtue of owning Egyptian travel document, the Palestinians become de facto stateless. This is because the travel designates no nationality. This essentially means that ownership of the travel document does not eliminate the problems that come with being a refugee. Indeed, there are numerous difficulties to be encountered by the users of the Egyptian travel document.
The Casablanca Protocol was signed by the member states of the Arab League. It states that whenever their interests so demand, Palestinians who presently reside in any member state of the Arab League shall be accorded the right to leave the country and later on return to it. However, the reality in Egypt for Palestinians differs remarkably from the declaration made in the Casablanca Protocol. Brand reports that Palestinians leaving Egypt must either return within six months of produce papers to prove that they are working or they are enrolled in an education program abroad. On the basis of this proof, the individual may be granted a return visa valid for only one year. Those individuals who delay in returning beyond the stipulated date are denied entry.
El-Ebed states that given that there are limited job opportunities in Egypt, many Palestinians are forced to seek employment in gulf countries or elsewhere (108). However, many of them are reluctant to go for these jobs because of fear that their return to Egypt will be denied. Many Palestinians encountered such serious problems following the Gulf War between 1990 and 1991. These problems were caused largely by the stance of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. In essence, the position of illegal status and statelessness puts Palestinian refugees in a position of great vulnerability in the course of their stay in Egypt.
- Possible future policy changes with the newly elected government of President Mohamed Morsi
There are several policy changes that the newly elected Egyptian government under President Mohamed Morsi can put in place to help solve the problem of Palestinian refugees. To start with, it is worthwhile to point out that the new government has already extended a gesture of goodwill towards the suffering Palestinian refugees. In October 2012, Egypt granted citizenship to tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees, most of them from the Gaza Strip. This is an extremely rare move on the part of Egypt, and should therefore not go unnoticed in any discussion about the welfare of Palestinians.
The Morsi government ordered the Egyptian Interior Ministry to immediately grant citizenship to individuals born to Egyptian mothers. Barrow reports that following this decision by the government, more than 50,000 Palestinians have already received Egyptian citizenship (4). According to Barrow, all indications are that this number may double by early 2013 (4).
However, one major policy change that the new government should implement is ensuring that the newly accorded citizenship rights are safeguarded in law. In announcing the decision to grant citizenship to the Palestinians, the Egyptian has used a decree just like the previous regimes. Whenever there is a change of government, the subsequent administrations either overturn the previous decrees or misinterpret them. Moreover, even in the context of the current government, there is a possibility of the decree being wrongly interpreted in some instances. This may create obstacles for some Palestinians, thereby preventing justice from being served. The Morsi government ought to enact a law that sets out a framework on how citizenships are granted to Palestinian refugees.
The administrators in the new government should also remember that Gaza Strip was under the occupation of Egypt between 1948 and 1967. There are many Egyptians who live there and have been married to Palestinians. Therefore, granting citizenship to the Palestinians living in Egypt is in the best interest of Egypt. In Al-Aswani’s view, it is natural for the Egyptian government to hope that the positive gesture will be reciprocated with regard to the Egyptians living in the Gaza Strip (8).
Egypt also needs to take a more proactive approach to the problems facing the Gaza Strip, where most of the Palestinian refugees come from. There is a need for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to work together with Hamas in addressing the major problems of the Gaza Strip. One of the major problems is that some global jihadist groups have set up bases in Gaza.
President Mohamed Morsi should play a leading role in reconciling the main rival political organizations in Palestine, namely Fatah and Hamas. These two organizations have been at loggerheads since the take-over of the Gaza Strip by Hamas in 2007. Reconciliations between these organizations would mark a major step forward in efforts to push ahead with the Palestinian course. Hope points out that already, President Morsi has demonstrated his willingness to engage in shuttle diplomacy in Palestine by holding meetings with the leaders of both Hamas and Fatah (3). During his reign as president, Hosni Mubarak, Morsi’s predecessor, never met with Hamas leaders officially. Mubarak maintained stronger ties with Fatah while Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood is aligned to Hamas.
The balanced approach that President Morsi is trying to strike may help resolve the Palestinian power struggle once and for all for the betterment of the lives of all Palestinians. Indeed, a lasting solution for Palestine may only be found following the formation of a coalition government that brings on board all the major rival political organizations.
All the measures that Egypt take towards unifying the people of Palestine should geared towards the ultimate aim of increasing chances of forming a state. For this reason, it may not be wise for Egypt to open up trade with Gaza. Such a move may make Gaza to distance itself from the West Bank, thereby decreasing the probability of success in the establishment of a Palestine state.
Hope observes that the current siege on Gaza continues to cause suffering among Palestinians in Gaza (3). Lifting this siege would be a major step forward for Palestine. It is important for Egypt to play a role in ensuring that this goal is achieved. Similarly, Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood should take advantage of its ties with Hamas and convince its leaders to allow for the holding of free and fair elections across Palestine. The new government should make full use of the greater flexibility that has been achieved since the exit of former President Mubarak, particularly with regard to dealings with Palestinians.
- Suggestions: Proposal for shared responsibility
The best proposal as far as the problem of Palestinian refugees in Egypt is concerned is one that focuses on human rights and needs of refugees. In terms of rights, the main reference point should be international law. Moreover, there should some focus on the goal of addressing the refugee problem once and for all. By focusing on refugee, the main issue should be on whether it is practically viable to facilitate access to rights among all Palestinian refugees.
Kagan points out that Egypt needs to enact a refugee legislation in which access to asylum is guaranteed (12). This guarantee can only be provided when the law transfers the responsibility of taking care of the refugees’ needs to the state. However, the chances of success of this approach should be weighed against potential political risks. It is crucial to put into consideration the strategic interests of Egypt inside Palestine.
Kagan adds that in the absence of new legislation, it is necessary to focus on the international treaties that govern human rights (13). Egypt is already bound by a number of these treaties. These treaties can easily be enforced within the Egyptian judicial system. This constitutes an excellent legal opportunity, although it is based on the assumption that Egypt’s judicially will be greatly enhanced within the formation of a new government under President Mohamed Morsi.
In all these efforts, the UNHCR should play a supportive role. Whenever necessary, it would be necessary for the UNHCR to put in place ad hoc arrangements with the Egyptian government as well as the governments of other countries. Kagan argues that the participation of the UNHCR would greatly help dispel the notion that the presence of refugees in Egypt is a ploy to drain all the country’s limited resources.
There is also a need for Egypt to renew its commitment to the universally-acknowledged principle of non-refoulement. The international law provides certain guaranteed rights for refugees, and one of them is non-refoulement. Nevertheless, voluntary repatriation and resettlement should remain as viable options. Those refugees who feel that repatriation is not possible should be encouraged to accept the option of resettlement. This would go a long way in dispelling the fear of Egyptians regarding local integration. Moreover, it would create lasting solution to the problem of irregular migration and continued suffering among Palestinian refugees.
However, the reality in all situations involving refugees is that there are always some refugees who can neither be repatriated nor resettled. The best option for such refugees is permanent residency. This is the reason why the decision by Morsi’s new government in October 2012 to grant citizenship to some Palestinian refugees is a major step in the right direction. A viable approach to the granting of permanent residency statuses to refugees may be the use of a quota system that is linked to the number of refugees benefitting from resettlement to third countries.
However, there is one specific area that deserves special emphasis. Kagan states that there was a 1954 Memorandum of Understanding in which the role of the Egyptian government with regard to Palestinian refugees was stipulated (13). This memorandum should be re-negotiated in order to reflect the country’s obligations in the context of international law. Such an effort would mark a new dawn in refugee policy in Egypt. For this reason, it would be welcomed by the donor and resettlement governments and the international community at large.
In summary, there are certain basic principles that Egypt needs to follow in addressing the refugee problem. One of them is instilling a new sense of re-commitment to refugee law with a lot of emphasis being on non-refoulement. For this new sense of commitment to refugee law to occur, Egypt should understand that non-refoulement is applicable to not only refugees but also asylum-seekers.
It is also crucial for refugees to be given the privilege of having their refugee status determined. This is particularly the case for those migrants who have been detained and are seeking refugee protection. Kagan observes that for such individuals, access to the UNHCR should be allowed and facilitated (14). It is also appropriate for the country to create room for judicial review in situations where refugees have been detained, even when the move is authorized by law.
The principle of due process should also be adhered to in Egypt. This principle stipulates that the UNHCR should be allowed to continue conducting registration of refugees. The UNHCR should also be offered the necessary support in undertaking refugee status determination (RSD). Under this proposal, Egypt would be obliged to respect the decisions of the UNHCR on refugee status.
Regarding social welfare of the refugees, Egypt has the primary responsibility. However, the international community is obliged to provide support, primarily through the UNHCR. In this way, it would be easy to ensure that the social rights of Palestinian refugees are not violated. For instance, the refugees should be able to access emergency and intensive healthcare in just the same as Egyptian citizens. Most of the focus should be on vulnerable refugees in efforts to bring about lasting solutions to the plight of Palestinian refugees.
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