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For refugees in Egypt, escape is deadly

Egypt's shoot-to-kill policy along its border with Israel is questioned.

Egypt refugees, United Nations
An Israeli policeman looks at Egypt from the Israeli side of the border between the two countries on July 20, 2010. (David Buimovitch/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt — As Egypt assumed its year-long chairmanship of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees executive committee in Geneva last month, its policy of shooting unarmed migrants along its “death zone” border with Israel has come into stark relief.

Last week a Sudanese man was shot and killed by Egyptian security guards as he attempted to sneak through a portion of the 160-mile barbed wire fence running through the barren Sinai desert. At least 25 African migrants have been killed this year alone, adding to the scores since 2007.

Ali Daher is one of those willing to take the risk in exchange for a better life.

After all, the 29-year-old has already escaped death once by fleeing to Egypt from the violence in his native Somalia. But after waiting for resettlement elsewhere for nearly six years in his overcrowded apartment in a Cairo slum, Daher is increasingly frustrated and forlorn. As a refugee, he can’t work and has little access to health care. Now, Daher said he has little choice but to chance a crossing.

“If I had the money to hire a smuggler to help me across the border, I would do it. I’m not scared of bullets,” he said. “At least there would be a future for me in Israel. I’d rather die than go crazy waiting here.” 

Daher is one of nearly 40,000 officially recognized asylum seekers and refugees using Egypt as a transit nation because of its relative security and proximity to war-torn countries like Sudan, Somalia and Iraq.

The likelihood of long-term solutions for many of them in Egypt, however, is bleak. Although asylum seekers and refugees are entitled to protection by the UNHCR, those rights in Egypt are frequently denied. And with a local U.N. refugee agency itself stressed by large numbers of applicants, many are forced to remain waiting in limbo, with little hope to leave.

Egypt has no domestic legislation or official institutions for processing refugees. All responsibility for documenting and determining the status of asylum seekers in Egypt has been delegated to the UNHCR, under the provisions of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees.

Egypt is a signatory member to the convention, as well as its subsequent protocols, but made reservations to several articles along mostly financial lines.

The result is that the vast majority of refugees in Egypt are heavily dependent upon stipends from the UNHCR, charitable giving from nongovernmental organizations, and are largely unable to earn a decent livelihood, according to Michael Kagan, a former director of the Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance organization in Egypt.

Asylum seekers are largely unable to obtain work permits and are forced into the informal sector — cleaning houses or peddling items illegally on Cairo’s streets. Access to public health care and free government education at the higher levels is also unavailable for most.

“At best, the refugee system in Egypt offers someone minimal safety on the first day of their escape. Then on day two and day three, there is nothing for them,” Kagan said. “People spend indefinite periods of time in very difficult slums. There’s no future for them. It could be survivable, in the sense that you could keep a human being alive. But the mental suffering for refugees can be quite extreme.”

Occasionally, asylum seekers are detained before being allowed to access the UNHCR.