As war rages at home, Syrians seek refuge in Egypt

Around 118,000 Syrians have sought asylum in Egypt, where ruthless smugglers target those wearied by delays.

Recent Syrian arrivals register at UNHCR's office in Cairo, Egypt.
© UNHCR/Scott Nelson

The people here – the adults sitting quietly, children running about – occupy one of the waiting rooms of modern history.

They are Syrians in Egypt, asylum seekers who have fled conflict, who have lost family, homes, work. The room in the registration centre of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Zamalek, Cairo, offers them a lifeline.

A hand raised, holding a yellow document. A man smiling. A small victory for him and his family. The paper he holds is a UNHCR document, valid for 18 months, which will allow them to get a residence permit. And allow his children to go to school.

The process is slow, because of the large number of asylum seekers – almost 118,000 Syrians out of a total of more than 190,000 from several dozen countries.

"It was very hot and the kids suffered... We spent two days without water."

Nahed is getting an iris scan, a necessary step to record her and her family’s biometric data in order to receive the UNHCR document.

Hers is an all-too-common story of terror and loss. She and her three children come from Homs. Three years ago, in the maelstrom of war, her husband disappeared. She waited and despaired. Her husband, she knew, was dead.

She chose to escape and her route was mapped by smugglers across the desert. It was a brutal crossing.

“It was very hot and the kids suffered,” she said. “One developed a very bad nose bleed. We spent two days without water. All the water we had was gone. The children suffered a lot.”

Syrian refugees register with UNHCR in Egypt.

Upstairs at the registration centre is a UNHCR innovation – an infoline set up to help asylum seekers and refugees, often living far from the centre of Cairo. Eleven operators field diverse questions about financial assistance, food distribution, education, refugee status determination, and a variety of protection issues.

Many refugees hope for resettlement. UNHCR Egypt submits some 6,700 refugees for resettlement to third countries on a yearly basis. This offers a lasting solution for the most vulnerable refugees, as well as those who have specific protection concerns in Egypt.

Some asylum seekers decide they cannot wait. In Alexandria, at the Caritas centre which is supported by UNHCR, Fatma told of also turning to smugglers, but this time to cross the Mediterranean with her three children, after two years of economic difficulties and frustration as an asylum seeker.

The boat capsized and sank. Twenty people died, just some of the almost 4,000 who have drowned or gone missing making the crossing so far this year alone. Fatma was saved.

“After six hours in the water we were rescued. Then I was taken into detention here for two months."

“After six hours in the water we were rescued,” she said. “Then I was taken into detention here for two months, me and the children.”

There is a happier coda to this traumatic story of drowning, rescue and detention. With the help of a small cash grant from Caritas and UNHCR, she set up a home-based cooking business, making take-away dishes with her children’s help. She earns roughly US$30 a week, enough to support the family.

As for the Mediterranean and a smuggler’s boat: “I will never think of trying irregular ways again. I suffered, my children suffered and I will never do that again.”

She still dreams of Europe and a better life for her children, but she will wait and cook and hope for legal resettlement.