Rights of Palestinians in Egypt: Who dares talk about them?

From September 2001 to September 2003, I was based in Cairo with the Forced Migration Refugee Studies Program at the American University in Cairo (AUC) where I taught a course on Palestinian refugee issues and conducted research on the livelihoods of Palestinian refugees in Egypt - especially that they receive no United Nations assistance or protection, and that since 1978 they have been treated as foreigners in Egypt.

Throughout my time researching, I experienced interference from Egyptian security authorities which did not really impede the procedures of my research. This culminated earlier this month in my being held at Cairo airport on the way from my home in Amman to present a paper in Cairo on the unprotected Palestinians in Egypt. I was refused entry, interrogated by security, held virtually incommunicado for 10 hours in a dingy back room in old Cairo airport and then sent back to Amman, Jordan. I was not given a clear reason for them denying my entry and deporting me, but, clearly, the questions during my interrogation were focused on my research findings that were published in the executive summary report (extracted from my forthcoming book on the unprotected Palestinians in Egypt).

The summary report, in theory, mirrors facts on the ground. The report raises facts of laws and regulations issued by Egyptian authorities on how to treat Palestinians. For the purpose of understanding the implementation of the regulations, I conducted interviews with 80 Palestinian households who had been living in Egypt since the 1950s or 60s and residing in six Egyptian governorates. In my analysis I used the tools of international refugee law and human rights declarations to call for justice in the treatment of Palestinians as humans and as refugees who are waiting for the day of return.

The problems I encountered while doing my research with the state security services very much reflected the Egyptian politics vis-a-vis Palestinians living on its territories. The various events that happened to me; either during field work interviews with Palestinian families when I was ordered to stop the interviews or in September 2003, during the preparation for a workshop to disseminate the findings of my research at AUC, when I was asked to cancel the event or when I was denied entry to Egypt, all prove that I am a danger for Egypt. A danger because of the reality and the truth that I am reporting to the world.

Palestinians in Egypt receive no protection, assistance or support from any United Nations body or from the host country. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was never permitted to serve Palestinian refugees in Egypt as it does in other host countries from the time it was established in 1949. Moreover, Palestinian refugees in Egypt have been excluded from the protection of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Egypt ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention in 1981 but remained reluctant to be bound by the convention, apparently out of a perceived conflict between the status for Palestinians favored by the Arab League and that of the convention, and also because for many years the Palestinian Liberation Organization had opposed providing individual Palestinian refugees with the status of the 1951 convention, considered prejudicial to the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.

Arab countries, including Egypt, argue that the Palestinian refugee problem is to be resolved on the basis of a special formula of repatriation and compensation rather than the formula commonly accepted for refugees at the time, resettlement in a third country. Hence, UNHCR, despite the reinterpretation of article 1d of the 1951 convention considering refugees who are not served by other UN bodies as ipso facto refugees and entitled to the benefits of the convention, does not provide protection to Palestinian refugees in Egypt.

Egypt in turn permits no citizenship rights to Palestinians who reside there and hold Egyptian travel documents. As of 1978, Palestinians were denied all basic human rights that once were granted to them by President Nasser. For the last 26 years, they have had no rights to free education, employment, property, business ownership or association. They are treated as foreigners. As is the case for any foreigner in Egypt, applying for a residency permit has to be justified. An official document, such as school or university attendance or work contract, must be provided even if the person were born in Egypt. Otherwise, their stay in Egypt is illegal, the case of a great number of young Palestinians in Egypt.

Palestinians with Egyptian travel documents can use the document under two conditions: to ensure re-entry, return to Egypt within six months or to apply for a return visa for one year by providing a work contract or proof of education enrolment abroad. If there is any delay in return, entry is denied. Cynically, in the small dingy room of the airport in which I was kept, I met a Palestinian holding an Egyptian travel document who was denied entry to Egypt since he overstayed his return visa. His mother is Egyptian and he was raised in Egypt where he remained until 15 years ago when he decided to leave and look for work elsewhere. Today, he works in Tanzania and was hoping to spend his holidays with his family in Cairo. The Egyptian authorities, denying him entry, told him to seek a visa for another country. Through contacts of his wife, he was waiting for a visa from Russia. He was not sure when he would leave and had already been there for five days but had hopes of receiving his visa in another five days.

The experience in all was enriching, especially since during my research I heard many stories of Palestinians who were deported who spent months in this room in the airport. I was never able to imagine the gloomy feeling of being stranded and cut off from the world. Now, I know. I was put in the same conditions, not as a researcher but as another person to be deported, differently though, to my home town.

Oroub El Abed lives in Amman and most recently worked at the Forced Migration Studies program at the American University in Cairo. She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR





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