With the number of displaced Syrians reaching 3 millions this year, grassroots organizing and activism for refugee populations in the Middle East is becoming ever more urgent. The Center for Refugee Solidarity was established this month to produce research and documentation about the plight of refugees in the region. In this conversation with Migrant-Rights.org, Center directors Nader Attar and Jasmin Fritzsche discuss issues of displacement and the NGO’s future projects.
Migrant-Rights.org: What does the Center aim to accomplish?
Nader G. Attar: The Center for Refugee Solidarity is an independent Sweden-based Organization committed to monitor the situation of refugees in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and to advocate on their behalf. Making rights abuses visible through monitoring, documentation and advocacy, the Center for Refugee Solidarity aims to push key national and international stakeholders to ensure that the rights of refugees in the region are respected and upheld.
MR: What kind of projects are you working on?
N.A: The Center for Refugee Solidarity was officially launched on Oct. 2nd , 2014. It was a strategic decision to focus on Egypt for the first 6 months of our operations, due to many factors such as our expertise in the situation there. We also hope to compliment the work of Egyptian NGOs in this matter. Nevertheless, we are also working on networking and building cooperation in other countries in the MENA region where we are planning to operate in and focus on. Right now, we are following the situation of Syrian refugees in Egypt closely, gathering information and facts and documenting them, and also working on increasing our coverage to include African refugees in Egypt, who we believe are not given enough attention, and a significant amount of advocacy shall be made on their behalf. Moreover, we are working on a series of campaigns and events to be launched soon, focusing and advocating for refugee rights in the MENA region, thus contributing to a better understanding of the situation of refugees there.
Also, it is important to note that we are working on the Center's Blog: http://www.refugeesolidarity.org/blog/ with the aim to give practitioners, journalists, academics and activists a platform to share their insights with the goal of informing a wider audience and nourishing the debate on forced displacement in the MENA region, as this is an important project for us.
MR: You’ve previously worked with Syrian refugees in Egypt, how has the situation developed there lately?
Jasmin Fritzsche: In the month of July to October last year, we have seen a shift in the public perception of Syrian refugees in Egypt, fueled by a media hate-campaign, politicizing the refugee population. At the same time, the numbers of arrests and deportations of Syrian as well as Palestinian refugees increased dramatically. There were times when over one thousand Syrian and Palestinian refugees, including hundreds of children, were held by the Egyptian government, awaiting their deportation.
In the last year, those numbers have gone down again and societal acceptance towards refugees from Syria seems to have increased again. However, there are still a number of strong concerns to be raised about the situation of Syrian and especially Palestinian refugees in the country.
In July 2013, Egypt issued a new immigration policy for Syrians. According to these requirements Syrians have to obtain a visa and security clearance prior to their arrival. Although in theory only drafted as an additional security control for those arriving from Syria, it led to Egypt's borders being de facto completely closed for Syrians, denying them the possibility to enter Egypt on a regular way and seek asylum in the country.
While those Syrians who manage to enter the country are able to register with and receive protection through the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Palestinian refugees are denied this protection. UNHCR's ability - as the agency in charge of the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process in Egypt – to register Palestinians is constrained by a longstanding policy not to not to acknowledge and accept Palestinians as refugees. The protection gap faced by Palestinian refugees in Egypt - many of whom are currently fleeing from Syria – results in denied access of many basic services, such as health, education, employment, as well in a high vulnerability towards the arbitrariness of the Egyptian state's policies, such as deportation orders.
The most worrying development we have been observing is the increasing numbers of Syrian and Palestinian refugees leaving on boats from the Egyptian coast towards Europe. As the regular reports of tragic incidents on the sea show, the journey across the Mediterranean Sea is an extremely deadly one. While the response from the Egyptian side should be to create a better environment for those refugees residing in the country and invest in awareness raising, the official response is rather shaped by the criminalization of the journey. In September 2013 for example, Egyptian coast guards opened fire on a boat filled with Syrian and Palestinians leaving from Alexandria. The incident resulted in the death of two refugees. Most recently we have documented an incident where about 130 migrants, mainly Syrian and Palestinian refugees, are held by Egyptian officials after they were evacuated from a boat that has been stranded at sea for six days.
MR: Are you cooperating with Swedish institutes and authorities regarding Syrian refugees; considering their growing number there.
N.A: As we are a Swedish NGO, for sure we are building networks and looking for possible beneficial cooperations with other Swedish NGOs. We are based in Sweden, but our area of focus is the MENA region, as the landscape in the MENA region shows that none of the local NGOs or institutions engage in a comprehensive manner in documenting current abuses and advocating for the rights of refugees there, due to a lot of constraints on NGOs and tough working conditions there. Moreover, there is a pressing need to document the current situation of refugees in this region in order to subsequently advocate for better refugee and asylum conditions in the MENA region. So, as I said earlier, our cooperation will have to be in regards to those vulnerable refugees in the MENA region.
This is when it comes to documentation, campaigns, events etc. but we also do advocacy, and in that regards, we will be for sure cooperating with Swedish authorities, among other countries' authorities and governmental bodies too as we are trying to be a voice for the refugees in the MENA region and advocate for their rights. Not to mention that the increase in the numbers of Syrian refugees in Sweden is a direct reflection of the hard living conditions they live in in different countries in the MENA region, and the vast amount of violations they face. So for us it is important to work to spot the problems and try to fix them at the origin.
MR: How will you approach the issue of migrants crossing to and into Europe?
J.F: We believe that the increasing numbers of refugees willing to take the risk of crossing the Mediterranean Sea, from countries such as Egypt, in order to seek asylum in Europe are linked to the conditions under which those refugees live in the first country of asylum. One of the major groups of refugees leaving from Egypt, are Palestinian refugees from Syria as well as a newly increasing number of Palestinians from Gaza. As I mentioned earlier, Palestinian refugees are unable to register as such in Egypt and are therefore denied basic rights. Hence, they don't have any prospects of finding a durable solution and living a dignified and secure life in Egypt. With our work, we want to draw attention to those circumstances aiming for a shift in perception and policy, away from criminalization towards a broader protection regime for those refugees in the countries of the region.
MR: What do you think of the work done by UN bodies and foreign NGOs for refugees in the MENA area?
J.F: With the current situation in the region we have to acknowledge that the UN, especially the UNHCR, have a lot on their plate. Having to deal with a very dynamic refugee landscape and the sudden occurrence of large-scale displacements, such as currently the case in Iraq, unfortunately often bears the risk of neglecting long-stating refugee situations, such as the Sudanese refugees in Egypt. UNHCR is in many cases not able to adequately execute its protection mandate due to financial constrains. The agency's country office in Egypt for example is chronically underfunded and understaffed, resulting in unacceptable waiting periods for refugees with regards to the RSD and resettlement process.
A major shortfall of the UN system in the region is the comprehensive protection of Palestinian refugees during secondary displacement. Palestinian refugees fleeing from Syria, are often marginalized and discriminated against by the receiving countries, such as Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. With it's own separated regime in place for Palestinian refugees, the UN fails to push for a holistic approach towards the protection of all refugee groups coming from Syria.