Egyptian police arrested 28-year-old Karim Ahmed — who asked that his real name not be used due to security concerns — earlier this year while he was working in a restaurant in 6th of October City, a Cairo suburb. Ahmed, an Iraqi refugee who came to Egypt with his father in 2016, was held in an overcrowded cell where he could barely stretch his legs for 15 days. “I have a valid [tourist] visa that I renew every three months, and I have the yellow [asylum seeker] UN card, but that meant nothing [to the police],” Ahmed told Al-Monitor.
The neighborhood where police took Ahmed is known for being home to a large refugee population, a fact that is evidenced by the variety of Iraqi, Syrian and Sudanese restaurants and shops that have given life to the area. It also means security forces often go on random sprees to check migrants for residency documents.
“Every morning from four to six they would beat us,” Ahmed told Al-Monitor, explaining the notorious conditions of Egyptian police stations. “You manage not to get arrested in your own country, only to be arrested where you are supposed to be taking refuge.”
Yet going back to Iraq remains a bigger risk. “I wouldn’t be here if things were OK in my country or if we would not face death if we went back,” he said.
Initially attracted to the country by the reasonable cost of living and a shared language and culture, thousands of Iraqis have chosen Egypt as a temporary home since 2013, with hopes of eventually getting resettled in a Western country.
Egypt had hosted Iraqi refugees after the 2003 US occupation of their country, but many of them have since left for resettlement, migrated to the Gulf for work or returned to Iraq. “The situation for Iraqis who came in 2003 is different. Those who are still here stayed because they were doing well as businessmen,” Oudai Hussein, 49, an Iraqi refugee who came to Egypt in 2013 and is a community leader affiliated with Doctors Without Borders, told Al-Monitor.
“Now there is this perception that all Iraqis have money,” Anas Qasem, 50, said as he recounted an incident in which a UNHCR employee told him, “But you Iraqis are [financially] comfortable.”
“I swear to you there are people here who can only afford one meal a day … and they do not get any aid from the UNHCR,” Qasem told Al-Monitor, referring to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Hussein explained that the Iraqis who have recently come to Egypt to escape the Islamic State and militias are in a much more precarious position, as they are not allowed to work or enter their children into public schools, and they are not afforded the same services from nongovernmental organizations that are given to their Syrian and Sudanese counterparts.
According to the UNHCR, the number of Iraqis currently registered as refugees stands at 6,775 individuals out of a total refugee population of 230,340 individuals.
“I came here because I thought it was a place where I could protect my kids, where we would not have to learn a new language like we would in Turkey, and because it was cheaper than other countries,” Qasem told Al-Monitor. “Lebanon is not a signatory of the  Refugee Convention, and Amman is [one of the] most expensive [countries] in the world.”
Qasem’s reasoning echoes that of others, such as 23-year-old Sajad Saadoun, who settled on coming to Egypt because they spoke “Arabic and because it was more affordable … but this is not the case anymore.”
Many of the initial reasons that attracted refugees to Egypt dwindled as inflation and austerity measures have increased. After Egypt agreed on a $12 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund in 2016, the government implemented severe reforms, including subsidy cuts and tax hikes, that have distressed the country’s financially vulnerable groups.
“If you’re making 1,500 [Egyptian pounds] a month, how are you expected to live?” Saadoun’s brother Mustafa said as he explained that lack of access to work permits leads people to join the unstable informal sector where they are more likely to be exploited.
“If we want to enroll our children in school, we will have to pay for private schools,” Qasem said.
Hussein explained that “this means you have to pay a minimum of 5,000 [Egyptian pounds] per year — and if you have several kids, that’s tough. I have four kids, which means I would have to pay 20,000 [Egyptian pounds].” Hussein’s children have been unable to attend school for the four years they have been in Egypt. Lack of access to health services is another problem for Hussein, whose diabetic son barely has access to insulin amid the medical shortages and price hikes.
Hussein El Tamami, 28, has been trying to get funding to buy baby formula for his daughter for the past eight months since his wife passed away while giving birth — an incident he blames on negligence. “I have been going [to the organization, Caritas] for months, waiting in lines for hours. But just today the employee told me they had not even registered in their system that my wife died, and my daughter needs milk.”
Tamimi works at a fish shop on weekends and days when police are not suspected to pass by asking for documents. “I cannot work,” he told Al-Monitor, adding, “How can I provide for my kids?”
“Much of the funding received by the UNHCR is earmarked for Syrians who constitute 56% of the UNHCR’s population of concern in Egypt at the moment, which explains the reason behind the different services offered to the different population groups,” Christine Beshay, a media spokeswoman for the UNHCR, told Al-Monitor.
She added, “To address this gap, UNHCR Egypt has recently launched an appeal to address the needs of Sub-Saharan Africans, Iraqis and Yemenis in Egypt.”
While Hussein and Qasem were both able to get security visas that grant them six-month residency permits, other younger Iraqis have had to come with tourist visas. This has put them in an increasingly vulnerable position in which they have to account for their movements in order to avoid arrest.
Saadoun emphasized that most Iraqis in Egypt are waiting for resettlement and do not wish to make a permanent home there. “There are people leaving [for Europe] by sea. If we could do that, we would. But even that is too expensive for us,” he said, adding that it costs $3,000.
“We would not have left our country if we did not need to,” Qasem said, “I had to move inside Iraq six times. It is the hardest thing to leave your country. … I only left when there was no other option.”
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