CAIRO – In the vicinity of the UNHCR in the city of "6th of October" in Giza governorate, south of Cairo, Mubarak Ali, a recent arrival in Cairo with five members of his family behind him, is waiting to receive "refugee" status, saying that it will be the front page of his suffering book.
Quickly Ali and says to Al Jazeera Net, "Sorry, the first page started from Khartoum about two months ago, perhaps years of corruption and loss."
Ali is not known that the Egyptian government has approved a new draft law regulating asylum in Egypt. The man does not sound optimistic, but says "the brothers in Egypt will not leave us alone," referring to the rest of his family who have set up a "small tent" in the vicinity of UNHCR after the long wait there.
Duha, who only gave her first name, complained about what she called "poor organization" and spoke of "unjustified cruelty by some security personnel." She expressed, in her interview with Al Jazeera Net, her hope that the new law – whose details are not known – will contribute to ending her suffering quickly.
Duha said she understood "the right of our Egyptian brothers to organize," noting that huge numbers of displaced people see Egypt as the best place, at least at the current stage.
Duha said she will act immediately to regularize her family under the new law, noting that she works in the field of selling ready-made clothes and has relatives who own licensed shops in Cairo.
The family of Sudanese Mubarak Ali set up what looks like a tent in front of the UNHCR after the long wait to submit an asylum application (Al Jazeera Net)
Legalization of the situation
In a remarkable move described as a reflection of the continuing unrest in Sudan, a draft law approved by the Egyptian government came to "regulate the asylum of foreigners and establish a committee to manage their affairs in the country."
During its meeting on Wednesday, the Egyptian cabinet approved the draft law, which obliges refugees and asylum seekers to regularize their situation within a year from the date of entry into force of the executive regulations.
According to the draft law, the Egyptian prime minister may extend the aforementioned period for a similar period, while the government issues the executive regulations of this law within 6 months from the date of its entry into force.
The draft law also stipulates that the Permanent Committee for Refugees shall have a "legal personality" and a body responsible for refugee affairs, including information and statistical data on refugees.
The committee coordinates with the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and cooperates with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other organizations and agencies in Egypt to ensure the provision of support and services to refugees.
Ahmed Nagy, a member of parliament said the draft law, which will be referred to parliament, "comes in line with Egypt's belief in human rights in heart and soul". He told Al Jazeera Net that the move confirms Cairo's intentions on this file and respect for the human being, whether Egyptian or non-Egyptian.
Naji said legalizing the status of refugees preserves their rights while protecting the country from the consequences of any illegal asylum or breakdown from the system. He also said that the Egyptian state "appreciates the current risks due to wars in many countries, especially among our brothers in Sudan, but countries must facilitate the return of their citizens as soon as the current circumstances end."
Last December, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry announced that Egypt is hosting some 6 million refugees and providing them with livelihoods, care and full support.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi recently stated that his government "unlike some other countries, does not detain migrants in camps, but allows them to live freely in society."
9 million refugees from 60 countries
The United Nations' International Organization for Migration estimates that more than 9 million migrants reside in Egypt, from about 60 countries. These numbers are likely to increase, according to Christine George, an official at the UNHCR in Cairo. The outbreak of conflict in Sudan between the army and the Rapid Support Forces on April 15 led to large waves of refugees to Egypt.
She said amending refugee regulations was an important step, but said details would become clear after parliament passed the law.
According to Christine George, migrants from Sudan, Syria, Yemen and Libya make up 80% of the refugees currently residing in Egypt, considering that "the positive rhetoric of the Cairo government towards refugees is an attractive factor for migrants and asylum seekers."
According to UNHCR statistics, since the start of the fighting in Sudan until the end of May, Egypt received more than 170,164 refugees, including <>,<> Sudanese. The majority of refugees in Egypt are from Syria, followed by Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Yemen and Somalia.
Women wait behind a tight security fence beaten around UNHCR in Giza (Al Jazeera Net)
"Stand up or shoot"
Although Egypt is described as an important destination for refugees, Suleiman al-Saeed, a human rights defender at the South Research Center, points out that it is still criticized by many human rights organizations for its policy of dealing with this humanitarian file.
"The regulations governing irregular migration fall short in affirming important rights for refugees," al-Saeed said, explaining that "ancient Egyptian law lacks guarantees for the rights of asylum seekers as well as freedom of movement and education, nor does it guarantee protection from refoulement, which is the deportation of a migrant to a country where he may be seriously harmed."
Al-Saeed described the new draft law, according to the details announced by the government, as a mere regulation and does not present anything new, stressing the need to put the items for public discussion before it is approved by parliament. He said the government may have moved "to control matters, collect dollar fees and play the refugee card in front of international organisations and donors".
The human rights defender called on the government and parliament to confirm in the new law to remove any ambiguity about prosecuting, detaining or treating a migrant as a criminal, stressing that the asylum seeker is a victim and may fall into the nets of human trafficking gangs.
He noted that Egypt is a party to the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, which guarantees the principle of non-refoulement.
El-Said also considered that the work environment in Egypt is suitable for many categories of migrants, especially "irregular workers" from Sudan, Eritrea and South Sudan. However, he acknowledged difficulties that he said would arise in the coming period due to high unemployment among Egyptians.
He pointed out that the number of immigrant and refugee students enrolled in Egyptian universities for the academic year 2020-2021 reached 102,<> students, most of whom are Arab nationalities. He explained that studying at Al-Azhar University is one of the attractions for immigrants, and "these contribute to the revival and growth of the economy, and are not its opponent as some promote."
Until the new law was passed, work remains under a memorandum of understanding signed by the Egyptian government and UNHCR in 1954. The old law does not include the term "refugee," but "migrant," according to al-Said, who noted that Egyptian police may still have a "stop or shoot" policy to control the border, and it is unclear if this will change.
Egyptian security forces killed 15 African migrants in separate incidents in Sinai in November 2015. In 2005, a sit-in by Sudanese migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers protesting outside UNHCR headquarters in Cairo seeking resettlement in other countries was forcibly dispersed, leaving at least 20 people dead.
Stuck and vulnerable to abuse
Salem Ayyad, a human rights defender, pointed out that some asylum seekers waited for more than 3 years to examine their applications, pointing out that a large percentage of stranded asylum seekers are Syrians who spend months homeless on the streets due to what he called "political tensions", and are "vulnerable to all forms of violations."
Ayad hopes the new law will put an end to such abuses and push the government to shoulder its responsibilities. Ayad told Al Jazeera Net that leaving refugees on the streets is a kind of shooting them already.
While work is underway to issue the new law, hundreds of Sudanese are standing in the vicinity of the UNHCR in the city of "6 October" carrying colored cards, each according to his legal status.
Most of the papers were yellow, indicating that the applicant still holds the status of "petitioner" and not "refugee," says Adam Ahmed, a member of the team that helps the Sudanese.
Ahmed says it can take months to obtain refugee status; there are multiple interviews with UNHCR officials and a long search for identification papers lost due to the war, and he hopes the Egyptian authorities will overcome these complexities in the new law.