Press Association/Benjamin Girette. All rights reserved.Twelve year-old Sameh, a native of el-Minya in Upper Egypt, had come to Cairo during his school holidays to work there as a kiosk vendor and help ease the financial strain on his family back home. I lived on a road in the downtown neighbourhood Bab el Louq, where scores of people like Sameh from Minya worked in the 24-hour roadside kushks or kiosks, as bakers, making food deliveries or in the failing tourism sector. Most had enough for day to day life, but if one fell sick, he was entirely dependent on the goodwill of his employer to pay for treatment. There was no future, just daily chores, cracking jokes and a night time spliff.
Sameh was a bright and curious boy. Being in the capital for the first time, he soaked up new impressions, his eyes wide open. Perhaps I was the first German or even European he had met. I answered his questions about Germany, the German language, schools, animals, birds in particular. In the spring of 2011 he asked me what I did for a living. When I answered that I worked with refugees he looked at me without comprehension.
The word refugee, in Egyptian Arabic lagi', is not commonly known in Egypt. The compound lagi'in siyasiyin, political refugees, is more likely to hold some meaning. I was at a loss trying to explain what a refugee is, and elaborate on the legal concept. My friend Sim Sim, who worked in the kushk where Sameh and I were sitting, weighed in. "Refugees are people like you and me, Sameh. They need to leave their home, because they cannot live there anymore. They go somewhere else to look for a new life." I explained that most of the people I work with were from Sudan, Somalia and Iraq, where there is war.
During my time in Egypt, I also worked with people from Eritrea and Ethiopia, at some point Libyans started coming to our office, and the occasional Nigerian and Cameroonian. Our little NGO provided high school and vocational education, psycho-social services, and in my department legal assistance for those struggling to formulate their asylum or resettlement claims. Most importantly however, our compound, built around a colonial-era evangelical church, was a safe zone, where single Iraqi women could meet, where traumatised Ethiopians would be greeted warmly, Sudanese community leaders could exchange ideas on how to pull their communities out of poverty, and parents could sit on benches under trees, while their children were kicking around a football. Our interpreters were refugees themselves, receiving a meagre reimbursement for hours of commuting from the cheaper outskirts of Cairo to the city centre.
Someone escaping war is not necessarily a refugee. Persecution has to be individual, violence in general does not grant asylum rights.
At times, it was hard to establish who was a refugee and who was not; who had asylum claims, who qualified for resettlement? The lines between one and the other could be fine. The war in Darfur had subsided. There was no more systematic violence against Darfurians, even if sporadic violence continued, so the acceptance rate for asylum claims from Sudan had declined. Oftentimes there was no question whether someone had an asylum claim or not and needed to get out of Egypt.
Yet our NGO was also engaged with Iraqis, who had served in the special guards of Saddam. Digging deep into their stories, we were shocked to find a few of our clients to be murderers, even mass murderers. Others had escaped the turmoil of Iraq, because their business had failed. The socio-economic downturn and their resulting descent threw them into deep depressions. Others used whatever money they had to bribe their way out to Syria first, then Jordan, and eventually Egypt. Those who had the cash and the connection made it to the west, or at least got their children to safety.
Eritreans came to us, who could not demonstrate any proof of individual persecution. But after they had left their country – in the view of the Eritrean regime deserted – they faced imprisonment, torture and death upon return. The vast majority of all these exiles, some few million Sudanese, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, Somalis, Eritreans and Ethiopians somehow made do in Cairo. Often without any legal title, living in remote desert cities, or suburban slums, working informally, without access to state health-care or schooling for their children.
Most of the people we came into contact with, “persons of concern” in UNHCR terminology, were not refugees. In Cairo, a refugee was someone, who had a blue card, issued by the UNHCR. The UNCHR, located in the desert city going by the name ‘6th October’, was overworked and unable to accommodate or adjudicate the scores of migrants with and without asylum claims. The Egyptian state tolerates asylum-seekers on its territory, as long as they do not cause trouble, but does not register or provide for them. It delegates its responsibility to the UNHCR.
Cases of abuse by UNHCR personnel, mostly Egyptian local staff, were too numerous and coherent to be shrugged off as rumours. Some of our clients had to be accompanied to the UNHCR offices, out of fear that they might be beaten up by Egyptian local staff, or handed over to state security. Riots broke out in front of the UNHCR frequently. In 2007 the police shot at a crowd of thousands of refugees indiscriminately, killing 27.
Getting a UNHCR-issued ‘blue card’ is the ultimate goal for most – but it could take years. It enables access to support by Caritas and some other aid organisations, and is an absolute precondition for eligibility to a resettlement slot in the faraway lands of security and opportunity. So ‘Yellow cards’ were issued to asylum-seekers with a plausible case, and enabled access to some health-care services. From yellow card to blue card it would take six to twenty-four months or longer – if there was a plausible case, and even then not always. Some people would not push their cases further, knowing that they had no strong asylum claim. They would keep their yellow cards indefinitely, to get some access to health provisions. Others would not approach UNHCR in the first place, not in need, or having learned of its inefficiency and corruption.
The answer to Sameh’s question I had hesitantly endorsed was incorrect. It was my job to give legal advice to refugees and asylum seekers with strong asylum and resettlement claims. In the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention it reads that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.
An asylum seeker is someone who claims that he fulfils these legal categories, before his case has been decided. The ones who can settle in a safe area within the borders of their state are considered internally displaced people. An asylum claim also ceases to exist when there is no longer any plausible threat of persecution in one’s home country. This then leads in principle to repatriation. Someone escaping war is not necessarily a refugee. Persecution has to be individual, violence in general does not grant asylum rights. In its place most states offer what is called subsidiary protection, which provides for fewer rights, often precluding work or university education. Someone who leaves or escapes his country because of economic or ecological plight, or simply hoping for a better life is not considered a refugee. A refugee claim has to be made at the port of entry in the first country of exile. Thus, by land in a bordering country; by sea or air it could be anywhere in the world.
In reality the legal framework is violated everywhere. We, as legal councils, would focus on those with strong claims, but would not report grey area cases. We had other things to do. UNHCR with its mission to protect refugees was infiltrated by Egyptian state interests, international staff would often not get to see cases, and a club of national leaders in Geneva would once a year set rates for how many people would be resettled and how little they wanted to spend on refugees in transit countries – all of which would cost them either money or political clout at home, or both.
Migrants from all countries who no longer had to fear individual persecution, didn’t want to return to their countries, as livelihoods had been destroyed, civil or international wars waged on. Some established themselves in Cairo, even if at a subaltern, volatile place in society. Their lack of rights was often no different from the downtrodden Egyptian slum-dwellers. Others paid large sums to make it through the Sinai to Israel, via Libya to Italy or by flight to countries in Eastern Europe. Few had a place to return to, a safe homeland. All were in some sort of limbo, and the law was an imperfect tool to ensure a safe and just life.
I have no idea what happened to Sameh. I fear that his curiosity waned in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution. I most fear that Sameh’s curiosity was disappointed so bitterly by all that came, after a bunch of fat, old autocrats and religious soul catchers decided to violently block the future of a generation that he joined the apocalyptical maniacs of Daesh. The restoration and intensification of the totalitarian regime under Abdel Fattah El Sisi does not produce a dynamic economy able to absorb the ever-growing labour force. Oppression is worse than during the age of Mubarak.
Perhaps, Sameh became religious. Perhaps, political. Perhaps, Sameh has also saved up a bit of money and tried his luck crossing the Mediterranean. Perhaps he lives somewhere illegally, under constant threat of abuse by his employer or of being caught and expelled by the authorities. Majority societies in Europe would also probably regard him as a refugee – which he is not, even if he saw no other way but to leave.
It is foolhardy to assume a golden age of no migration, in which all lived side-by-side in cosy nation-states. Migrations have been part of the human existence from time immemorial, as we have roamed and settled the earth. Some migrations were forced – by tyrants, oligarchies, the plague, depletion of soil or earthquakes. Others were more light-hearted. Risk was always a part of it. The ramifications were always diverse; on the recipient population, the countries of origin and the environment, as we learn in David Abulafia’s The Great Sea – a history focused on the Mediterranean.
Five years ago, millions of people congregated in Tahrir square and across the Arab world demanding “bread, social justice and freedom”. These demands, accompanied by much western sympathy, have been disappointed since. Totalitarian regimes, Islamist opportunists and eventually western governments colluded in preferring a more easily exploitable logic of good versus evil, Islamist terror versus secular security. The result is flight. Flight by those, who cannot earn their daily bread; who fear imprisonment, enslavement and murder. The result is also a disenchantment with this world, which makes the promise of gratification in the other world ever more attractive.
As we in the west struggle to come to terms with these trials of a new age of migrations (see Migration Policy Institute and UNHCR Mid-Year Trends 2015) and struggle to find solutions to undocumented immigration, migration for economic reasons and security considerations, we must not forget that with all its shortcomings, our legal systems, with their provision of protection for refugees, is a human achievement and not an idealistic luxury. The unpredictable shifts and motions that our own actions have set in place all over the world, are best answered with a measure of confidence. Technology and trade are as important for our sustenance, as they are detrimental – if they go unchecked by strong laws and public legitimation. Just as we need to give shape and form to the forces let loose by trade, commerce and information, states must further develop refugee and migration law on a transnational level – even at the threat of momentary election defeat.
As we must find ways to deal with economic migration in all its variations and the effects it has on society and economy, we must offer a rights-based welcome to those who qualify for asylum. The state and its institutions play a central role in providing and enforcing rights. It needs to have access to the necessary resources to do so.
Fear-mongering, backward nationalism and abject lethargy mixed with a focus on safeguarding our passed down status and wealth is but sand in our eyes. We must cease making snap-judgements, pushing one-dimensional campaigns and stop the willed or unwilled (re-)production of false stereotypes. The hatred we spew is detrimental not only to immigrants but to the well-being of our own societies.