Eritrean refugees awaiting Federal Court decision suffer acute hardship in Cairo: Backgrounder

5 April 2011

Starting in September 2009, concerns were raised about refusals of Eritrean refugee applicants at Canada’s visa office in Cairo. Decisions suggested an inadequate understanding of how to apply the refugee definition.  Applicants were rejected as not credible on extremely flimsy grounds. There was a lack of sensitivity to survivors of torture and sexual assault.

Approximately 40 such cases are currently before the Federal Court. Three lead cases from the group will be argued April 6-7, 2011.

Seventeen Eritreans refused by Canada were recently interviewed in Cairo about their lives.

Of those interviewed:

  • 14 said they had survived torture. As refugees in Cairo, they do not have access to adequate treatment.
  • At least 11 are unemployed or have no regular source of income. Of those that do work, some are supporting several family members.
  • All 17 reported that they have suffered verbal and/or physical harassment in the street due to their skin colour.
  • 12 are single woman with no male protection and therefore particularly vulnerable to sexual and gender based violence. 4 are single heads of families.

The following is a summary of the interview of one of the lead cases being argued before the Federal Court.

Tsegeroman, aged 47

The only type of work available in Egypt for refugees is work in the informal sector and generally for women that means domestic work. I am 47 years old and I have constant trouble finding work because employers never select me, employers always demand to look at the passport before hiring and I am never selected as they always choose younger women.

Not being able to provide for myself is a great source of anxiety and frustration. I am always really worried and this worsens my stomach problem which requires treatment, so I am morally very down.

Since as refugees in Egypt, we cannot really integrate or have the right to work officially or access any services like other people in the country, I applied for sponsorship but even that did not work. I left my country because of my religion; for the last 25 years I have been Pentecostal, so I became very active member of  my Church and eventually I had many responsibilities in the Church. First thing the security were monitoring me and I was no longer able to practice my religion and I was afraid of getting detained and tortured like many other Pentecostals in Eritrea, so I left. I cannot return home because I might be killed for my faith and I cannot stay in Egypt because there is no hope of ever living normally.

I started the process for the Canadian sponsorship in the beginning of 2008 and I am still waiting, I am scared and I am losing hope.

Another applicant described his situation as follows:

Tsegay, aged 24

I fled my country because of my religious beliefs and went to Sudan and stayed for about 9 and 10 months. But Sudan was not safe for Eritrean refugees so because there were many round ups deporting refugees back to Eritrea, I was afraid so I fled to Egypt hoping to find security.

I started the sponsorship process at the end of 2007 and had to wait two years for my interview at the embassy. When I found out that I was rejected, I was heartbroken. The result of that decision is the extension of my stay in a country where I have not much security, no real legal status or future to work for ...

Since I arrived in Cairo in March 2007, I have only been able to find work for 4 months in 2010, but the rest of the time I have had to depend on the charity of my [private] sponsor [in Canada] and relatives.

As a refugee it is very difficult to live in Cairo, there is not much of a support system; there is not much work in Egypt for men, most of the work available is domestic work and employers prefer women.

During the demonstrations, being in Cairo confined in a house without security was very scary; there were looters in the first days of the demonstrations and you could see people on the street with knives.

As a refugee, I had no protection from looters or anyone who would hurt me. Egypt is even more unsafe now because we are in a transitional phase and I do not know what to expect, there is no security. The current authorities are not trained to recognize the UNHCR documents. I was walking in the street and was stopped for an identification check at a barricade, I showed my UNHCR card but I was asked to show my passports instead which I could not since I am a refugee. I was then taken with two other refugees and we were kept in custody of the army for 8 hours. We were handcuffed and left standing on the street as though we were thieves or criminals and people passing started taking pictures of us.

I am in constant waiting and fear, not knowing what will happen next or where my life is headed.

The following are some of the major themes that emerge from the interviews.

  • Economic problems

I work in Cairo but the conditions are very difficult. I work as a cleaner because there are no other options here in Egypt. I work 6 days and my employer is very hard person but I cannot complain to anyone.  The pay is barely enough to cover my expenses and I also support three people in Eritrea who are counting on me. (Hiwet, 44)

I have health problems that prevent me from doing too much physical work yet my employer is not understanding of my situation. Instead, I am only given one day off a week and work from 6 am to 2 am sometimes, it’s a stay-in job so my daily working hours depend on when my employers go to sleep. I have two brothers in a refugee camp in Ethiopia and the rest of my family, my mother, my father and my sister are in Eritrea. I have to support these five people from here. (Azeb, 32)

It is extremely stressful to care for my children with no security of a regular income and no prospect of ever having one. I am widow and have no other support than myself. (Jimieya, 36)

I have been a single mother for one year and I am not able to work here in Egypt to provide for my son. I am dependant on financial assistance from my friends but it is not secure or sustainable, I don't know if they will continue to help me and I do not know what to do. (Teberh, 32)

  • Routine racial discrimination, in some cases involving assault

In Cairo, I feel very insecure as I am continuously confronted to harassment in the street because of my skin colour. (Mussie, 27)

There is harassment everywhere, a friend of mine was on her way to my house and she was severely beaten on the street by Egyptians out of the blue. This makes me very afraid. (Teberh, 32)

Egyptians beat my children on their way back from school and they insult them because of their skin color - this has happened several times - it has even reached blood once and now they are very scared to go to school alone. My children are 11 and 12 ... I am an adult who has adapted to being a refugee but I am really worried about my children and their long term reaction to living in such a hostile environment. (Jimieya, 36)

  • Sexual harassment and violence

My two daughters cannot walk freely because of the sexual harassment in the street. (Simret, 37)

Because I am a woman, when I go out from home there is harassment, and on my way back as well, I live in a poor neighborhood, we took a tuk-tuk to return home, the driver of the tuk-tuk took us to a secluded area and the he took out a knife and threatened us with it to kiss him. We jumped off the tuk-tuk and ran as fast as we could; we were very scared. (Saliem, 27)

  • Lack of access to health care

 I have a problem in my chest which is not being treated adequately and in turn it affects my right arm and disables me from working as much as I need to. (Jimieya, 36)

  • Arrest and harassment by authorities, and limited legal rights

Once, when I was sitting in a coffee shop, about six or seven Egyptian men acting as members of the security force stopped their car right in front and then came to me and three other Eritreans, slapped us and ordered us to get into the car. We were afraid because our legal statuses had not been finalized yet, so they took us to some distance and in the car they beat us and robbed us from our money and phones then they threw us on the street at a distance.  (Mussie, 27)

No matter what happens to me, there is no authority I can turn to and if I am caught in the street I could be detained and deported to Eritrea where I was unjustly punished and tortured.  (Hiwet, 44)

The UNHCR refugee card does not allow me to apply for jobs, access further education or move around with freedom; being a refugee in Cairo is like being trapped, you have no ability to travel so you cannot go anywhere, but you cannot do anything here because you have no real legal documentation. (Tedros, 32)

I am very anxious, there is no hope for me here without access to education or employment, I don't have any rights to speak for myself or about the things that I have to face here, so I am really desperate and hopeless, always living in fear and anxiety. It's very hard to live like this. (Mussie, 27)

  • Increased vulnerability since the unrest in Egypt

During the protests in Egypt last January, I felt that I am not secure, because everything was closed, the UN and every humanitarian organization in the country so we all felt helpless and abandoned. All nations sent planes to take their citizens but there was nobody to care for the refugees, so this was very distressing.  We locked ourselves up at home and just waited to see what would happen next.  None of us knew what would happen, whether someone would try and break in to rob us, beat us, take us to prison and accuse us of crimes we had not committed, anything was possible because we had absolutely no institution or body to protect us. So all I could do was just wait for the next thing to happen, no matter how bad, with no ability to avoid or stop it, it was terrifying to live through this. I will never forget it. (Tedros, 32)

Now I am even more scared because there is no stability in Egypt, who knows what will happen here and what will happen to us refugees then. (Saliem, 27)

Now the army is running Egypt, and the army has no background on refugees or refugee documentation issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Cairo, which puts me at a daily risk of being arbitrarily arrested and detained. This just adds more to the fear and pressure we already suffer. (Mussie, 27)

  • Lack of hope for the future

Here in Cairo I am not really living, I am just waiting. (Azeb, 32)

The only hope that I had was the Canadian sponsorship and the hope of going to Canada, but then I was rejected. I am trying to keep courage by going to Church, but I became even more stressed when I got pregnant, with no support and one more person to look after. (Teberh, 32)  

I could not understand why I had gone through detention and torture in my country only to come to Egypt to find hardship and rejection too. (Tedros, 32)