Twice Displaced, Palestinian-Syrians in Egypt Need Help
As a researcher of migration and refugee issues, I assisted in a research project undertaken by the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo that investigated the situation of Palestinian-Syrian refugees in Cairo. I became more interested in the topic as I learned that Palestinian refugees from Syria, despite being born and raised in Syria and identifying as Palestinian-Syrians, are not considered refugees, as their Syrian national counterparts are.
This discrimination against a particularly vulnerable group of Arab refugees in the Arab world raises some serious questions about how countries in the Middle East and North Africa that draw on the rhetoric of Arab nationalism treat a group they claim to be protecting. In Egypt, the policies which treat Palestinian-Syrian refugees differently than other refugees are blatantly discriminatory and have led to a range of serious human-rights violations.
The Egyptian government denies Palestinian-Syrian refugees basic services and benefits, such as education and work. It also denies them legal recognition as refugees, a status that could provide them with international protection.
Since the eruption of the conflict in Syria, about 280,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria have been displaced within Syria, according to UNRWA, the United Nations agency that assists Palestinian refugees in certain countries. Some 120,0000 more have fled to nearby countries, including Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt, and to Europe.
In Egypt, around 3,480 Palestinian-Syrians registered with the Palestinian embassy between 2013 and 2018, but only 2,860 of them remain in Egypt. These estimates do not factor in those who did not register. The drastic decline in the number of Palestinian-Syrians in Egypt stems from the legal limbo and lack of basic rights, such as the right to education, that they face.
Initially, Egypt had fewer barriers to entry than other Arab countries. For many Palestinian-Syrians who came to Egypt, the country had no travel restrictions, and offered better and more affordable living conditions and a more welcoming environment. That situation changed over time, however, and many Palestinian-Syrians chose to leave Egypt, risking dangerous sea journeys through irregular migration to reach countries that offer better access to basic services and humanitarian assistance, including education.
The university’s Center for Migration and Refugee Studies conducted interviews with Palestinian-Syrians in Egypt as part of its project. One Palestinian-Syrian described the situation like this:
“[We] can’t receive education in universities. We are legally treated as guests and thus cannot register in schools, unlike the Syrians who are considered refugees.”
Education on all levels is one of the most prominent challenges that Palestinian-Syrians are facing in Egypt. During all 30 interviews that were conducted, lack of access to education was the problem most cited. In fact, Palestinian-Syrian refugees with relatives who have taken the sea route to Europe frequently cited the inability to pursue education as a reason for choosing irregular migration.
This was not always the case for Palestinians. From the mid-1950s to around 1978, Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel enjoyed rights in Egypt on a par with those of Egyptian nationals. Public education was free to all Palestinians, including university for qualifying students.
For subsequent generations of Palestinians, however, those benefits began to disappear, according to a 2009 study by Oroub El-Abed, “Unprotected: Palestinian Refugees in Egypt Since 1948.”
In the spring of 1978, the Ministry of Education decreed that Palestinian children had to be transferred from free public schools to private schools, where they had to pay fees.
In 1979, the Ministry of Higher Education issued a similar decision at the university level, requiring Palestinians to pay fees as foreign students, in British pounds sterling. In 1983 and 1984, the ministry issued decrees that reaffirmed the Palestinians’ foreign status and reiterated a ban on their entering technical disciplines such as medicine and engineering.
In Syria, displaced Palestinians had enjoyed free education and other rights of Syrian as nationals, with the exception of running for office and voting. They view education as a crucial part of their identity and the main route to security, decent employment and a stable future.
This path is no longer available to Palestinian-Syrians in Egypt. In the interviews conducted by the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, here’s how one woman reaffirmed the importance of education for Palestinians:
“[Palestinians] excelled in elementary, secondary and postsecondary education. We emphasize the importance of education in our community. And so, when we came to Egypt and were not able to enroll our children in school and send them to university, we were shocked and many of us migrated through the sea to Europe just to send their children to school.”
A young Palestinian-Syrian indicated that despite having been accepted to Cairo University to study political science, she had to defer because she could not afford to pay the foreign fees:
“I was told that I needed to pay equivalent to 2,000 in pounds sterling or I would lose my seat at the university. I deferred for a year and I don’t know what to do this year.”
She ended up deferring for another year and eventually did lose her seat at the university.
Legally, Palestinian-Syrians are treated as guests in Egypt. That means they have to pay 2,000 to 3,000 Egyptian pounds per year to enroll a child in primary scho. For families with multiple children, this adds up to a sum that many Palestinian-Syrians are unable to pay.
In regard to secondary schools, Palestinian-Syrians indicated that they were told they had to register their children at private schools, which charge fees ranging from 700 to 6,000 Egyptian pounds ($40 to $334).
During the yearlong administration of former President Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted in July 2013, Palestinian-Syrian children were able to register in public schools. That changed, however, under the current president, Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
Starting in 2016, students who were already enrolled in public schools were allowed to continue to the end of their schooling level, but couldn’t go on after that. Those who are in school often face discrimination and ridicule because of their Palestinian identity. A Palestinian-Syrian child in tenth grade spoke about her experience, saying, “Teachers tell me there is no Palestine, that I have sold my land and deserve the outcome I am in. I am harassed by my classmates for being Palestinian, although I was born and raised in Syria.”
It’s worth noting that UNHCR, the United Nations’ main agency for aiding and protecting refugees worldwide, is unable to register and assist Palestinian-Syrians who are displaced again to Egypt and other countries—unlike their Syrian national counterparts, who are eligible for refugee status and are able to enroll in schools free. UNRWA, the agency that deals specifically with Palestinian refugees, operates in Palestine and several neighboring countries, but not in Egypt.
Palestinian-Syrian refugees in Egypt need to receive better access to basic services, particularly education. The government needs to, at the very least, grant educational access for poor Palestinian-Syrians who cannot afford to send their children to private schools. Not only will this approach help make them productive members of society, it will also help make their eventual transition back to a postwar Syria easier.
There are several other steps that the government and universities should take to ease the plight of Palestinian-Syrians in Egypt.
Palestinian-Syrians are unable to work, get residence permits, or secure a future for themselves. Egyptian authorities should allow all refugees from Syria, including Palestinians, to renew their residency in Egypt until there is a fundamental change in circumstances in Syria that would make it safe for them to return. It should either waive the visa-renewal fees for all refugees from Syria, or charge them only a nominal fee.
Egyptian authorities should also allow Palestinian-Syrians to register with UNHCR and receive official refugee status, given the lack of UNRWA services in Egypt. The government should also ensure that all children of Palestinian-Syrian parents are registered in accordance with Egypt’s obligation under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Public and private universities in Egypt, such as the American University in Cairo and the German University in Cairo, should open up more scholarship opportunities on the undergraduate and graduate levels for Palestinian-Syrian refugees. Such scholarships should be supplemented by delivering services and programs that provide English-language or professional training courses that engage with the community and empowers students.
And we, as researchers, should make a more concentrated effort to shed light on the situation of Palestinian-Syrians in Egypt and make sure that their voices are being heard.
Tiba Fatli is a research assistant at the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo.