When Hana and her 15-year-old daughter landed at Cairo International Airport in March 2016, they assumed they had arrived in the right place. On board a Yemen Airways plane coming from Aden, they had left behind a country sunken in a war that was starting to appear entrenched. The fate of their city, the contested Hodeidah, was not looking any better, leaving them in despair over a way out.
For many Yemenis who, like Hana and her daughter, decide to flee from their country and have enough resources to do so, Egypt seems as one of the best options. Cairo is one of the cheapest capitals in the Middle East, and Egypt still has a relatively open-door policy toward Yemenis: Those under 16 and those over 50 can enter the country without a visa, and for those in the middle, a medical report is enough to get it. Yemenis in Egypt also have access to public schools and health care on equal footing as the locals.
Although there are no official Egyptian figures, Baligh al-Mekhlafi, the information counselor at the Yemeni Embassy, told Al-Monitor that some 700,000 Yemenis reside in Egypt, a number with which two Yemeni organizations working in Cairo consulted by Al-Monitor agreed.
Other estimations by Fahd al-Ariki, the current chairman of the Yemeni Community Council in Egypt — a council of dignitaries linked to the Yemeni Embassy — reduce this number to some 300,000, on the basis that some Yemenis first land in Egypt but then leave for somewhere else. Before the war in Yemen, Mekhlafi said that the number was around 30,000.
“I paid $400 to a doctor in Yemen to get a fake medical report stating that I had to receive cancer treatment in Egypt, and I brought my daughter,” Hana told Al-Monitor.
Once in Egypt, reality turned to be far less idyllic than what they had imagined.
“Now I am working in a small clothing factory from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m., six days a week. I only get some 1,200 Egyptian pounds [$67] per month,” she said. “And things are getting more and more expensive.”
Yemenis in Egypt do not have the right to work, so those who find a job usually end up in its large, underpaid informal sector. As a result, Hana and her daughter rent a flat in Cairo for 600 pounds ($33), which they share with other Yemenis to try to make ends meet.
Her daughter, on the other hand, could attend a local school, but the lack of specific support, like the auxiliary staff for refugee children, made her adaptation impossible. “She first went to a [private] Sudanese school because she is not connected to the locals,” Hana said. “But this year she is not enrolled because I can no longer afford it.”
The feeling that they are part of a neglected community due to what they perceive as a total lack of support, brings Hana to consider moving back to Yemen, no matter the risks. “We have been facing difficulties since the beginning,” she noted. “So sometimes I think of going back to Yemen and die there, instead of staying in Egypt. We are very tired.”
Far from being an isolated case, others have already started to take this step.
“Since last Ramadan in August, more and more Yemenis living in Egypt are going back to Yemen,” Ariki, a former manager of Yemen Airways in Egypt, said.
“There are an average of 10 flights a week to Aden and Seiyun airports [the only operating airports in Yemen] with 100 to 120 passengers each,” he said. He noted that from these passengers around 65% depart from Egypt and the remaining 35% stop over in Cairo on their way because it is one of the few cities with regular flights to Yemen.
“Before Ramadan, these flights were half empty,” he added.
Ariki ascribes the increase in the number of Yemenis returning to their country to their fatigue in Egypt. “They expected the war to finish sooner, but after almost four years, the burden for many of them is too heavy and they are fed up,” he noted.
Fatma is one of them. Talking to Al-Monitor from the port city of Aden, Fatma said she fled to Egypt in 2017, and one year in Cairo was enough for her. “If there was a place that is safe, and most importantly with good livelihood opportunities in terms of health care, work and income, I would leave the country,” she said. “In Egypt there is safety, but securing a livelihood is difficult because, as a Yemeni I could not find a job.”
Besides the economic problems and the lack of appropriate services noted by Hana and Fatma, Jamal, the director of a Yemeni grassroots organization based in Cairo, told Al-Monitor that another major problem faced by Yemenis is keeping their legal status in Egypt.
“The residency fees are more than 1,000 Egyptian pounds [$56] per person every six months,” he said. “And a lot of people get to a point where they cannot afford it and cannot renew it, so they stay illegally, which puts them in an even more vulnerable situation.”
This issue could be easily solved if Yemenis registered at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), but only a tiny number do so. As of November, 7,781 Yemenis had registered. The figure, however, is also increasing fast. In December 2017, 4,278 Yemenis had registered.
Nawar Rifaah, an external relations associate at UNHCR who works with Yemenis in Egypt, denies any responsibility for the huge disparity between the number of Yemenis living in Egypt and those who eventually register. “UNHCR raises awareness of the importance of registration among all refugee communities, but it remains up to the asylum-seeker whether they would want to register,” she told Al-Monitor via email.
Jamal thinks otherwise. He claims that the poor services provided by UNHCR and the fact that Yemenis cannot be recognized as refugees because UNHCR stopped conducting refugee status determination interviews for Yemenis unless referred for resettlement are the main reasons behind the low number.
Ashraf, a Yemeni from Sanaa who arrived in Cairo in December 2017, is among them. “Many Yemenis advised me not to register because it is useless. There are no real benefits,” he told Al-Monitor. “UNHCR does not believe in our problems."
“There is a general sense of disappointment [among Yemenis] that there is no cooperation or support, especially considering that they come from a country in war,” said Yousra, leader of another Yemeni organization based in Cairo.
For Jamal, many Yemenis have to deal with these structural problems, while they also deal with Egyptians who try to take advantage of their vulnerable position.
Ahmed, from Aden, admits having a large record in this regard. Last year, a friend of Ahmed came to Cairo with his 10-year-old son who needed surgery on his leg. The day of the operation, however, a group of people assaulted them and stole the $2,000 they had saved for it. After the incident, they had to go back to Yemen without performing the operation. “This happened in front of my eyes,” Ahmed told Al-Monitor. “I hear these stories four or five times per month.”
Ahmed encountered an abusive landlord while in Cairo. After a relative of his living in Canada had paid one year’s rent for the flat during a visit he made to Cairo, Ahmed’s landlord asked him to pay again 1,500 Egyptian pounds ($83.50) every month, eventually forcing him and his family to move out and lose his relative’s money out of fear of being hurt.
Nour, a Yemeni mother of five from Aden, also feels insecure. Shortly after enrolling her daughters at a local school in Cairo, the principal took advantage of her weak position and started to be abusive toward her, up until the point that she decided to stop taking her daughters there. None of her children currently attend school. “My dream was to be in a safe place where my children could study,” she told Al-Monitor. “But we don’t find any protection in Egypt.”
Yousra added, “All the problems that many Yemenis face affect them psychologically, emotionally and socially. And this prevents them from integrating easily with other communities, so they become unsocial and isolate themselves.”
Jamal noted, “Based on the bigger picture, we cannot deny that the Egyptian government still gives us some assistance. It is one of the only countries that still opens its arms [to Yemenis]."
“But Yemenis don’t receive any substantial help, so many run out of money and — after what happened to Yemen — suffer from depression or anxiety,” he continued. “In the end, they try to find a way out, sometimes illegally, sometimes by going back to Yemen.”