Palestinian refugees in Egypt face discrimination, say experts

Yousif Mahmoud al-Nimnim heads the local branch of the Palestinian Labour Union. (Asmaa Waguih/IRIN)


CAIRO — Palestinian refugees in Egypt continue to face major obstacles, including formidable travel restrictions and a lack of access to basic government services, such as free education.

“They don’t have many rights,” said Ashraf Milad, a lawyer specialising in forced migration studies at the American University in Cairo.

There are currently some 70,000 Palestinians in Egypt who - unlike their compatriots in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon - are not served by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), established in 1949 with the express purpose of assisting Palestinian refugees fleeing the nascent Israeli occupation.

Rather, Palestinians in Egypt fall under the mandate of UN refugee agency UNHCR.

Palestinians approaching the UNHCR office in Cairo are immediately registered.

A total of 193 Palestinians are registered with the refugee agency in the Egyptian capital.

Experts say that the basic rights of Palestinian refugees in Egypt have waned considerably in the last 25 years. Yousif Mahmoud al-Nimnim, head of the Egyptian branch of the Palestinian Labour Union, explained that Palestinian refugees enjoyed the generous support of the state under the regime of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s.

In the late 1970s, however, following the assassination of a government minister by Palestinian militants and the signing of the Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel new policies were put in place restricting Palestinian rights.

In the wake of Camp David, for example, Palestinian refugees gradually lost the right - albeit with some exceptions - to free education, a right guaranteed to all Egyptian citizens. “In 1952, education in schools and universities became free for all Palestinians,” notes Forced Migration Online, a website devoted to international refugee issues. “It was not until the 1978 Camp David Accords that Palestinians were gradually denied their right to free education.”

Long-time Palestinian refugees resident in Egypt confirmed this. “My son was born weeks after a new law gave rights to Palestinians born of Egyptian mothers, but I’ve been told the law doesn’t apply to my son,” said Said al-Ammasi. “Now we will have to pay more money for his education.”

Restrictive travel regulations in particular are a problem. According to Milad, Palestinian’s travel documents are often not renewed, which essentially prevents them from freely leaving the country. “I’ve dealt with many cases where Palestinians have been told that their passports would not be renewed,” said Milad.

A police source at the interior ministry conceded that, ever since the early 1990s, Palestinians in Egypt have been hard pressed to acquire official documentation allowing them to travel abroad.

“Thousands of Palestinians who came to Egypt 50 years ago obtained travel documents,” the source said. “But since the 1993 Oslo peace agreement, the Minister of Interior hasn’t issued many travel documents to Palestinians.”

When contacted ont his issue other government officials would not comment.

Nevertheless, the source added that there had been several cases in which the ministry issued travel documents after the UNHCR had testified to the statelessness of the refugee in question.

He went on to point out that, despite the bureaucratic hurdles, thousands of Palestinians had managed to integrate into Egyptian society, marry Egyptian citizens and find jobs after qualifying for residency permits.

According to analysts, though, state generosity towards Palestinian refugees is little more than a reflection of bilateral political relations. “Discrimination is linked to foreign policy,” said Bissan Edwan, a researcher specialising in Israeli affairs at the Cairo-based Arabs against Discrimination.

“When [former President Anwar] Sadat went to Jerusalem and lost his good relationship with [former Palestinian President Yasser] Arafat, residency permits for Palestinians in Egypt were soon decreased from five to three years,” said Edwan.

Forced Migration Online largely confirmed this. “Egypt’s political stance on the Palestinian question has fluctuated in relation to Palestinian attitudes towards peace, UN resolution 242, and settlement with the Israelis,” the online journal notes. “Everything that occurs at the political level has a direct impact on Palestinians in Egypt at social and economic levels.”

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