Syrian refugees in Egypt are bearing the brunt of a sudden wave of xenophobia, in one of the more unexpected side effects of the removal of Mohammed Morsy from the Egyptian presidency.
Since Mr. Morsy’s fall, Egypt’s new government has turned away hundreds of Syrians from its borders, at times sending whole plane loads of refugees back to their airport of origin. Widely watched Egyptian television hosts have threatened Syrians with hate speech — all because Syrians have become unfairly associated with Morsy’s hated Muslim Brotherhood.
Some Syrians report an increase in xenophobic street harassment, others greater job insecurity. One man claimed his children were not allowed to register at a state-run school because of their Syrian nationality. In a recent development, many Syrians now fear deportation following a sudden round of arrests of Syrian refugees who had allowed their paperwork to slip during the lax Morsy administration.
“Of course Egypt has a right to reinforce their laws — but give us a heads-up”, said Bouchra Zeinab (name changed), a prominent organiser in Cairo’s Syrian community. “We’re talking about people who are fleeing for their lives. They left Syria to escape being rounded up and arrested. Now that exact situation is happening to them here.” At least 90,000 Syrians have fled to Egypt from Syria’s civil war, according to official UN figures — while community organisers say the real figure could be above 300,000. Under Mr. Morsy, Syrians were allowed to enter Egypt with just their passports — and were greeted with open arms.
“As soon as Syrians got to Egypt, in many respects they were considered as Egyptians — when it came to access to public schools and healthcare facilities”, said Mohamed Dayri, the regional representative for the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
The warm welcome led many Syrians to take a laissez faire approach to registering as refugees with the UN, or to seeking official residency status from the Egyptian government. This left them caught off-guard by the new regime’s sudden change in policy.
Since July 8, 2013, five days after Mr. Morsy’s fall, Egypt’s military-backed regime has turned away those without prearranged visas — including Syrians already based in Egypt who were returning from trips abroad.
The turnaround in state policy came hand-in-hand with a wider volte face across Egyptian society. On July 6, Tawfik Okasha, a reactionary television talk show host, called on Egyptians to arrest any Syrians they found in the street.
Ammar, a Syrian video editor who asked for his surname to be withheld, said that his bosses had started to talk of firing the Syrian employees at his firm. “It could be coincidence. But we only started to hear about the possibility of firing Syrian employees after June 30”, said Ammar, referring to the date of the mass protests that led to Mr. Morsy’s departure.
Egypt’s military-backed regime has used nationalist rhetoric to justify its legitimacy and to alienate Mr. Morsy’s Muslim Brotherhood, prompting a wave of xenophobia that has also targeted Palestinians and Americans. But Syrians have borne the brunt of the hatred because of the unfortunate way they became associated with Mr. Morsy in the dying days of his presidency.
On June 15, Mr. Morsy shared a platform at a mass rally with hardline clerics who called for a holy war in Syria against the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Some clerics also condemned the anti-Morsy protests on June 30. In the minds of many Egyptians, the Syrian cause became entwined with Mr. Morsy’s — a perception reinforced by Mr. Morsy’s subsequent decision to end diplomatic ties with Syria. “From that day Syrians were perceived to be supported by one political faction, headed by the presidency”, Mr. Dayri said.
“The Syrians were used as a political pawn”, said Ms. Zeinab. “What that speech essentially did was side thousands of Syrians inside Egypt with one faction against another.” Absurd rumours spread that Syrians were heavily involved in the pro-Morsy movement. The situation worsened following Mr. Morsy’s ousting, when a Syrian teenager was arrested on charges of taking part in Islamist demonstrations. Soon there were suggestions on some television channels that the main pro-Morsy sit-in in east Cairo was 60% staffed by Syrians.
Last weekend the military set up roadblocks near the sit-in, allowing them to question dozens of Syrians on their way to and from work. Those who had not kept their papers up-to-date were arrested.
Rights groups have called for Syrians to be given a month to legalise their status.
© Guardian News Service