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Viewing cable 09CAIRO267, UNHCR UPDATES ON REFUGEE SITUATION IN CAIRO

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09CAIRO267 2009-02-12 15:03 2011-02-16 21:09 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Cairo
VZCZCXYZ0008
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHEG #0267/01 0431514
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 121514Z FEB 09
FM AMEMBASSY CAIRO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 1632
INFO RUCNRCC/REFUGEE COORDINATOR COLLECTIVE
RUEHDS/AMEMBASSY ADDIS ABABA 0344
RUEHAE/AMEMBASSY ASMARA 0189
RUEHKH/AMEMBASSY KHARTOUM 1247
RUEHGV/USMISSION GENEVA 0421
C O N F I D E N T I A L CAIRO 000267 
 
SIPDIS 
 
DEPARTMENT FOR NEA/ELA, AF/SPG, AF/E, PRM FOR LANGE 
 
E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/10/2019 
TAGS: PREF PREL PHUM PGOV ECON ELAB SU ER ET SO
IS, EG 
SUBJECT: UNHCR UPDATES ON REFUGEE SITUATION IN CAIRO 
 
REF: A. 08 CAIRO 1332 
     B. 08 CAIRO 1231 
     C. 08 CAIRO 1258 
     D. 08 CAIRO 2583 
     E. CAIRO 36 
     F. 08 CAIRO 1762 
 
1. (C) Summary: We attended the Cairo Office of the United 
Nations High Commission for Refugees' (UNHCR) multilateral 
meeting on February 4 to discuss refugee developments and 
UNHCR's plans for 2009.  UNHCR partners, NGO's, and western 
embassies also participated.  Following the meeting, UNHCR 
Regional Representative Saad Al Attar told us that UNHCR's 
relationship with the Government of Egypt (GOE) has worsened 
in the past year.  UNHCR no longer has unfettered access to 
potential refugees and asylum seekers, and is prohibited from 
working with Palestinians.  UNHCR summarized its operations 
for 2008, and addressed the major factors that impinge on its 
ability to assist refugees including budgetary constraints, a 
sharp increase in irregular transitory movement, and GOE 
pressure to limit refugee programs. Cairo is home to one of 
the largest urban refugee populations in the world. 
Estimates of the unofficial refugee population vary between 
1-2 million.  The large refugee population presents UNHCR 
with logistical challenges to providing assistance, and 
budgetary constraints limit UNHCR to providing a minimum of 
services. Refugees are dissatisfied with the quantity and 
quality of service.  There is no program to provide medical 
procedures and refugees either go without needed services or 
negotiate cheap operations that only complicate their medical 
conditions.  End Summary. 
 
-------------------------------------- 
UNHCR-GOE Relations: From Bad to Worse 
-------------------------------------- 
 
2. (SBU) Al Attar told the group that since February 2008 
there has been a significant change in UNHCR's relationship 
with the GOE.  UNHCR no longer has "automatic" access to 
potential refugees and asylum seekers. Al Attar stated that 
UNHCR sent 82 letters to the GOE on this situation without 
receiving a single response. The only group to which UNHCR 
was granted access was a group of 149 Eritreans and 
Ethiopians held in Aswan (reftel A).  He said 118 Eritreans 
were determined to be refugees and were accepted by Canada. 
However, these refugees were still being held in Aswan as 
there was no agreement on the part of the GOE to release them. 
 
3. (C)  Al Attar told us privately that the High 
Commissioner's (HC) call to open the Gaza border crossings 
during the Gaza conflict had infuriated the GOE.  As a 
result, the GOE will not allow UNHCR to attend any meetings 
on aid to Palestinians.  The GOE told Al Attar on February 3 
that "UNHCR is with the Doha group" (Note: This is reference 
to the GOE's view of the current political division in the 
Middle East with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan on one side 
and Qatar (Doha), Syria, and Iran on the other side.) and it 
is prohibited from working with Palestinians in Egypt, or on 
Gaza.  He stated that despite UNHCR's two memoranda of 
understanding with the Egyptian Red Crescent, and its 
provision of USD 80,000 in basic emergency needs assistance, 
blankets and medicine for Gaza, the GOE even prohibited UNHCR 
from working with a Palestinian/Iraqi family that was to be 
resettled in Europe.  The case was turned over to 
International Organization for Migration.  Al Attar assessed 
that as a result of the HC's comment, the GOE no longer 
appears to be committed to adhering to the refugee 
conventions.  He no longer has the ability to raise refugee 
issues with the GOE, and for the first time in his 27-year 
career, he feels "suffocated."  Al Attar told us that he is 
contemplating putting in for a transfer. 
 
------------------------------- 
Increase in Irregular Migration 
------------------------------- 
 
4. (SBU) Al-Attar told the group that the most significant 
change in refugee patterns over the past year was the 
irregular movement of Eritreans and Ethiopians to the Israeli 
border.  The GOE arrested and imprisoned approximately 2,000 
trying to cross the border.  Egypt forcibly deported many of 
these migrants back to Eritrea (reftels B-E). (note: 
According to human rights groups, Egypt forcibly repatriated 
approximately 1,200 Eritrean in June 2008. Amnesty 
International reported that between December 23, 2008 and 
January 18, 2009 Egypt forcibly repatriated about 100 
Eritreans. End Note). Al Attar thanked Ambassador Scobey for 
her help with Eritreans detained by Egypt and scheduled for 
deportation (reftels D, E). 
 
5. (C) Privately, Al Attar stated that in the past two 
months, Egypt has not shot any African migrants at the 
border.  According to Amnesty International however at least 
28 African migrants, in 2008, were shot by Egyptian police 
while attempting to smuggle across the border.  Al Attar said 
he was not aware of any Egyptian policy change on border 
procedures.  He told us that Israeli troops recently shot and 
killed two African migrants after they successfully crossed 
the border (NFI).  Al Attar said the Israeli Head of 
Immigration told him that approximately 6,000 Africans 
crossed in Israeli in the past year. Despite a change in 
Israeli Employment Law, preventing African migrants from 
obtaining work (NFI), UNHCR expects the irregular migration 
to continue because of the terrible human rights situation in 
the Horn of Africa, especially in Eritrea.  According to Al 
Attar, Human smuggling in the Sinai thrives because it pays 
more than drugs.  Although Israel is the most popular 
destination, other routes through Egypt and Libya to Europe 
and to Europe through Jordan, Syria, and Turkey are growing 
in popularity.  Al Attar told us that refugees say "it is 
better to be a beggar in Europe, than a teacher in Asmara or 
Addis Ababa." 
 
6. (C) Al Attar said that Egypt's solution to this phenomenon 
of irregular migration is to deport the migrants back to 
their countries of origin.  He told us that those caught by 
Egyptian police transiting the border who possess UNHCR 
identification will be imprisoned for one-year and released 
back to UNHCR.  However, if the migrants possess no refugee 
documentation the GOE will imprison them and then repatriate 
them to their home countries.  Al Attar is concerned because 
many Eritreans are going by boat straight from Eritrea to the 
Sinai Peninsula without bothering to register as refugees. 
He added that the GOE is especially keen to make sure that 
those avoiding military service be sent back and not given 
asylum. Al Attar claimed that there is "an agreement in 
principle between Egypt and Sudan" to return Eritrean and 
Ethiopian refugees, registered in Sudan, to Sudan vice their 
countries of origin.  He said that UNHCR's Assistant High 
Commissioner Erika Feller will come to Cairo to follow up on 
this agreement and will seek a meeting with the U.S. Embassy. 
 
--------------------------------------------- ----------- 
Refugee Services Impacted by Fixed Budget, Higher Prices 
--------------------------------------------- ----------- 
 
7. (U) Al Attar asked what effect the financial crisis would 
have on future USG funding for UNHCR.  He told us that UNHCR 
Cairo's budget has remained unchanged since 2002, while the 
registered refugee population has grown by four times to 
43,000. In 2008, UNHCR Cairo's budget was USD 5.5 million and 
Al Attar hopes to increase this to USD 6 million for 2009. 
However, Al Attar added that this budgetary increase will not 
account for the 30% increase in the prices of basic 
necessities in Cairo over the last year, which further 
reduces the ability of UNHCR and its partner organization to 
provide for refugee needs.  In 2008, UNHCR provided USD 48 
per year/per capita for financial and basic medical 
assistance.  This is down from USD 648 in 2000, and Al Attar 
acknowledges that this amount "does not begin to cover the 
basic expenses that refugees incur." 
 
8. (U) Despite the challenges, UNHCR and Caritas in 2008 
provided pharmaceutical support for 700 chronically ill 
patients, and supplied medical care for 350 pregnant women, 
and incubation for 30 infants.  UNHCR and Catholic Relief 
Services provided 6,500 education grants ranging from LE 
850-1550 (USD 155-280), which helped defray some costs for 
enrollment in private, public and refugee schools. UNHCR also 
funded programs to care for 180 unaccompanied minors and 
reduce youth violence among Sudanese refugees.  Due to the 
lack of basic funds, UNHCR and its partners also provide 
self-reliance and vocational training for the refugees.  In 
2008, partner organizations provided vocational training for 
900 refugees, and placed 73 trainees in local jobs. 
 
--------------------------------------------- -- 
GOE Discouraging Refugee Self-Reliance Training 
--------------------------------------------- -- 
 
9. (C) Al Attar stated that the GOE on February 3 expressed 
concern that UNHCR's self-reliance/vocational training 
programs enable refugees to take "Egyptian jobs."  The GOE 
told UNHCR that it should not offer refugees vocational 
training programs unless the refugees have agreed to 
participate in the voluntary repatriation programs.  UNHCR is 
working with International Labor Organization to conduct a 
survey on its self-reliance training activities.  The survey 
results will be released in April.  UNHCR and its partners 
will use the survey to provide targeted training 
opportunities for refugees, but Al Attar noted that the 
training will be linked to voluntary return. 
 
--------------------------------------- 
Some Progress on Voluntary Repatriation 
--------------------------------------- 
 
10. (SBU) Al Attar said that the "positive development" for 
2008 was the success of UNHCR's voluntary repatriation 
programs.  He said that 1,800 Iraqis voluntarily returned in 
2008 (reftel F).  This constitutes 18 percent of the 
registered Iraqi refugees in Egypt. (Note: The numbers of 
Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR only declined by 500, 
which probably means that many Iraqis, already living in 
Cairo, registered with UNHCR to obtain assistance. End Note). 
 Al Attar stated that the repatriation of Iraqis has slowed, 
but he expects it to pick up after the end of the current 
school year.  He also told us that the UNHCR Cairo office 
repatriated 900 South Sudanese last year, down from 1,250 in 
2007. Al Attar blames the reduction on the situation in South 
Sudan, where he says there is "no development and no jobs." 
He expects that the number repatriated to Sudan will decrease 
again this year. 
 
-------------------------------- 
Resettlement is not the Solution 
-------------------------------- 
 
11. (SBU) Al Attar assessed that resettlement is not the 
solution to the refugee situation in Cairo. He is concerned 
that an emphasis on resettlement will create a "pull factor" 
encouraging more refugees to come to Egypt.  Last year, UNHCR 
resettled 925 refugees from Egypt to third countries, of 
which 425 were from Sub-Saharan Africa and the remainder 
mostly Iraqis. Currently, UNHCR only processes resettlement 
for those considered "at risk."  This includes refugees that 
have been tortured, suffer from life-threatening medical 
conditions, or those "in need of protection."  UNHCR plans to 
resettle 900 refugees out of Egypt in 2009. 
 
12. (C) Comment: Egyptian concerns about repatriation or 
resettlement options, economic competition between refugees 
and Egyptians for limited job opportunities, and discussions 
over UNHCR's access to potential asylum seekers in Egyptian 
prisons creates tension between the GOE and UNHCR.  High 
Commissioner Guterres' call on January 5 to open Gaza border 
crossing exacerbated an already tense relationship. However, 
the GOE does not believe the relationship is a bad as what 
UNHCR believes (details coming septel).  UNHCR feels pressure 
from the GOE and regularly approaches us about our inability 
to take emergency resettlement cases, the length of our 
resettlement process, and the absence of a DHS official with 
whom to coordinate on resettlement.  Both Saad Al Attar and 
Deputy Director Katharina Lumpp are exhausted by the 
bureaucracy, and new faces and a new approach may help to 
reinvigorate UNHCR and it relationship with the GOE. 
SCOBEY