The Plight of Syrian Refugees in Egypt

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Whether as a final destination or as a means to continue on to Europe, Syrian refugees have been flowing into Egypt in great numbers since the start of their homeland’s civil war in 2011.  For the first two years of the crisis, most of these Syrians fared well in Egypt.  The Egyptian people were generally welcoming, and Morsi’s government supported the refugees by assisting with their access to residency, employment and education. But when the military deposed Morsi and took control in the summer of 2013, the refugees found that the previously welcoming environment of their host state was now incredibly hostile.  The situation threatened not only the Syrians who stayed in Egypt and suffered—and still do suffer—through the worsening climate, but also those Syrians who, having realized their new host state is no longer a safe haven, subjected themselves to incredibly risky ocean voyages to find refuge elsewhere.

 Syrians not only lost the state’s institutional support in the time following Morsi’s fall, but they were suddenly shunned and stigmatized.  During his presidency, Morsi and other members of the Muslim Brotherhood, in an attempt to gain Islamist support, made a point of publicly showing great approval for the anti-Assad Syrian rebels.  This desperate strategic ploy from a president facing rapidly disappearing support succeeded mainly in linking the Syrian refugees with Morsi’s regime and the Muslim Brotherhood in the minds of many Egyptians.[i]  In the disorienting wave of nationalism that crashed over Egypt following the revolt, Syrian refugees were scapegoated by the military and the public as Morsi’s allies and possible actors in external plots to destabilize the new Egyptian states.[ii]  Thanks to their perceived support of the Muslim Brotherhood, the once welcomed refugees were suddenly seen as the enemy in a state whose new goals were partially directed against Islamist groups.  Caught in a foreign land between a threateningly suspicious public and an unfriendly government, Syrians in Egypt were far from a safe refuge.

As suspicion and xenophobia took hold of the zealously nationalist Egyptians, public opposition to Syrians affected the refugee community through constant discrimination and occasional—but still far too frequent—violent, ethnically-charged attacks.  Just days after Morsi’s ousting, an armed band of Egyptian citizens mobbed a charity for Syrian refugees in Cairo.  Members of the mob accused Syrians of encouraging instability in Egypt, shouting that the immigrants were “setting the country on fire.”  In the chaos, the men severely beat the manager of the charity center and left his 25-year-old son in a coma. [iii]  Around the same time, another Syrian in Cairo was stabbed multiple times on a crowded bus while his assailant accused him of being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. [iv]  While the vast majority of Syrian refugees in Cairo and other cities never suffered at the hands of their Egyptian neighbors from that level of shocking violence, all Syrians in Egypt felt the daily pressure of the public’s ethnic enmity.  This constant discrimination presented itself in verbal harassments from people in the street and members of the press, a lack of employment opportunities, and frequent denial for refugees seeking residence.[v]   The once arguably thriving and supported refugee community was now being persecuted and marginalized, and some nationalism-crazed Egyptian citizens made sure to serve as active reminders.

While the Egyptian public’s growing anti-Syrian sentiments certainly did much to create a hostile environment for the refugees, the worst treatment came at the hands of state actors.  On July 8, 2013, just days after gaining power, the state suddenly announced that, for the first time in history, all Syrians attempting to enter Egypt would first need to get a visa and a security clearance—an act that unquestionably told hopeful refugees they would no longer be welcome.[vi]   In addition to these new restrictions to entry, the new Egyptian government began enforcing old laws requiring the refugees to update residence permits that had largely gone unenforced during the previous regime.[vii]  The expected lack of valid residence permits, accusations of broken curfews, and, very often, no valid reason at all, were used by police and military to detain—and then often deport—Syrian refugees in cities all across Egypt.[viii]

While the arbitrary arrest of Syrian nationals within Egypt came to a halt, the pressures placed on the refugees allowed authorities another place in which they could confront and detain Syrians—the ocean.  As many Syrians began to doubt there would ever be a future for them again in Egypt, they began seeking out people smugglers in port cities like Alexandria.[ix]  From there, they board cramped boats and begin a treacherous, and often unsuccessful, voyage to Europe.  While the smugglers themselves are incredibly dangerous and exploitative, generally lacking regard for the safety of their human cargo and often charging ridiculous rates, the illegal crossings also supplied with a new means for Egyptian authorities to thwart Syrians in their search of safety.  During 2013, hundreds of Syrians attempting to flee to Europe were intercepted by the military, pulled from boats and brought to detention centers in Egypt.  Once they were detained, charges against the refugees were often dropped.[x]  With the charges dropped, there could be no trials—they weren’t accused, but they couldn’t necessarily be acquitted either. It was after they were put into this legal limbo that many Syrians were reportedly given a horrifying choice: go back to Syria or stay in the indefinite—and reportedly inhumane—detention of the Egyptian National Security Agency.[xi]  The Egyptian state was severely punishing the Syrian refugees for attempting to escape a problem that it had both instigated and maintained.

The situation for Syrian refugees in Egypt has certainly improved in recent months, but the Egyptian state isn’t easing the ills of the Syrian crisis as well as it was during the early years of the civil war. While the public’s attitude toward Syrians continue to soften, and the treatment from the state has steadily grown less oppressive, Egypt is far from being the welcoming haven it was before the summer of 2013.  And, as ISIL pushes even more refugees from an increasingly dangerous Syria and other states struggle to support the masses coming across their border, a welcoming Egypt would do much to ease the intensity of the conflict throughout the region.


[i]      Vio, Eleonora. “The Syrian Refugees Being Persecuted by Egypt’s Government | VICE United States.” VICE. 31 Oct. 2013. Web. 14 Oct. 2014.

[ii]      Fahim, Kareem.  “In Egypt, a Welcome for Refugees Turns Bitter.”  The New York Times.  7 Sep.  2013.  Web.  Oct.  2014

[iii]     Fahim

[iv]     Fahim

[v]     Stoter, Brenda. “Syrian Refugees Embark on Exodus from Egypt.” Al Jazeera. 3 Dec. 2013. Web. 16 Oct. 2014.

[vi]      Vio

[vii]      Vio

[viii]      “‘WE CANNOT LIVE HERE ANY MORE’: REFUGEES FROM SYRIA IN EGYPT.” Amnesty International. 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 17 Oct. 2014.

[ix]      Kingsley, Patrick.  “Desperate Syrian refugees risk all in bid to reach Europe.”  Guardian News and Media, Sept.  2014.  Web.  Oct.  2014.

[x]      “Egypt: Syria Refugees Detained, Coerced to Return | Human Rights Watch.” Human Rights Watch. 11 Nov. 2013. Web. 8 Oct. 2014.


[xi]      Vio