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Will Syrian students be banned from Egypt's universities?

A parliamentary proposal to ban students from Syria and other countries from enrolling in Egyptian public universities has sparked debate.

Abdel Aty Massoud, a member of the Education and Scientific Research Committee in Egypt's parliament, sparked debate after he suggested banning students who are from Syria and other countries from enrolling in Egyptian public universities. As a result, the committee was divided into two camps. While some backed this suggestion because universities are overcrowded, others opposed it, arguing that close bilateral ties between Egypt and Syria need to be preserved.

The Education and Scientific Research Parliamentary Committee met Feb. 12 to discuss Massoud’s proposal. The meeting was attended by then-Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Ashraf El Shihy.

Some members believe that it is necessary to deny enrollment to Syrian students and that Egyptian students be given priority because of the lack of openings in the universities. Others, however, considered that it is necessary that all Syrian students be admitted to universities and have equal rights in terms of tuition fees and attendance.

Alif Kamel, a member of the committee, told the press Feb. 11, “The demand that Egyptian and Syrian students be treated equally must be heeded, to highlight Arab unity and Egyptian-Syrian cooperation. But it would be an obligation for Egypt to stand by its Arab brethren should more universities be established in Egypt,” in reference to the overwhelming number of Egyptian students and the limited number of universities in Egypt.

Kamel added, “Egypt is not a wealthy state that can assimilate a large number of students from other countries into its education sector. Syrian students cannot be enrolled at the expense of Egyptian students; priority should be given to Egyptian citizens. Egyptian students need to be enrolled first, and in case there is a surplus of seats in universities, Syrian students may be admitted without any discrimination between them and Egyptians.”

Shihy said during the meeting, “It is unacceptable that well-off Syrian students take the Egyptian students’ seats and rights. I will not have any student of any citizenship replace Egyptian students.”

Ghida Shafiq Qalaji, secretary-general of the Syrian General Commission for Refugees and Development, an organization in Egypt that provides assistance to Syrian refugees, told Al-Monitor, “Syrian students have put up with a lot of suffering. Everybody knows about the internal war and crises the Syrian people have suffered from, which forced them to abandon their houses and jobs and resort to Arab countries, including Egypt, which had always supported us. Yet things have changed this year. After Syrian and Egyptian students paid equal tuition fees, which were minimal and convenient, universities are heading toward the implementation of a new system requiring that tuition fees be paid in dollars instead of Egyptian pounds. This system, however, is applicable to students who do not hold a degree from Egyptian high schools.”

The tuition decision requires that foreigners, be they refugees or immigrants, pay a higher fee in hard currency, contrary to the past when they paid minimal fees just like Egyptian students.

She added, “For instance, all faculties of medicine at Egyptian universities are requiring that all refugees and immigrants pay $7,000 per year. There is no distinction between refugees and immigrants in the education sector. It is impossible for us to pay this sum.”

Qalaji added, “Nevertheless, given our suffering, Syrian students willing to be enrolled in any public university [are an exception and are given a] 50% reduction of tuition fees. For instance, in order for a Syrian student to register at the faculty of medicine, $3,500 needs to be paid. This sum is also big. Where can the Syrian student get this sum from?”

Qalaji viewed that it is impossible for refugees to pay this sum, despite the reduction, and demanded that Syrian refugees and Egyptian students pay the minimal fee of about 600 Egyptian pounds ($37) in public universities.

She continued, “I don't know why universities took such a decision that serves a ban preventing the admission of Syrian and other refugees in Egyptian universities. We know well that Egypt is facing an economic crisis and needs to boost foreign currency supply. We also know that there is huge number of Syrian refugees in Egypt. … But why do Syrian refugees have to pay the cost?”

According to Sept. 23, 2016, UNHCR figures, “As of August 31, 187,838 refugees and asylum-seekers have been registered with UNHCR in Egypt. The largest number, 116,175 — or 62% of the total [number of refugees] — were Syrians, followed by 31,200 Sudanese, 10,941 Ethiopians, 7,254 Somalis and 7,000 Iraqis, among others.”

Qalaji concluded, “Egypt is a host country of Syrian and African refugees. In the name of brotherhood, we call upon Egypt to cancel the new system adopted by the government in universities and bring equality back between Egyptian and Syrian students, so that minimal fees can be paid in Egyptian pounds, as was the case last year.”

Egypt ratified on June 28, 1980, the 1951 Refugee Convention providing for the social and legal protection of refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin.

Constitution Article 93 stipulates that “the state is committed to the agreements, covenants and international conventions of human rights that were ratified by Egypt.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Education and Scientific Research Parliamentary Committee member Samir Ghattas rejected Massoud’s proposal, saying, “Egypt’s ties with brethren Syrian people are historical and deep. We certainly reject the proposal to ban Syrian and other Arab and African students from being enrolled in Egyptian universities. We stressed the need that they receive equal treatment regarding tuition fees, which Egyptian students pay in Egyptian pounds. This was decided by the committee at the end of the meeting, and the minister complied with our request. Yet a distinction needs to be made between Syrian refugees and immigrant students, as immigrants and refugees should not be equated with Egyptian students. Well-off Syrian students who got their secondary school degrees from Saudi Arabia, for instance, will not benefit from low fees.”

The proposal to ban the entry of Syrian refugees to Egyptian universities is on hold until parliament approves or rejects it during the next few weeks.

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