Loaded with fresh meals, Arabiyet Elkheir, “the car of good” drove through rugged roads before pulling over in East Cairo. Although it was met by an outburst of residents, the distribution was over before even starting.
Loaded with fresh meals, Arabiyet Elkheir, “the car of good” drove through rugged roads before pulling over in the heart of kilo 4.5 sub-district in East Cairo. Although it was met by an outburst of residents, refugees and asylum seekers in the neighbourhood, the distribution was over before even starting.
“Please leave,” advised one of the refugee community leaders. “Our lives have been upended by two months of lockdown measures and a meal is not going to fix it,” added one of the refugees, expressing the frustrations of an entire community.
The Arabiyet Elkheir initiative, led by Egyptian actor Ahmed Hatem, Uber and Venture Lifestyle partnered with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to ensure refugees and asylum-seekers were included, alongside Egyptians, in various meal distributions throughout the holy month of Ramadan. The initiative sought to alleviate some of the extra pressures that have befallen them since the outbreak of COVID-19.
It is the time to think about the millions of people who have fled war and violence
“Ramadan is a month of giving, empathy and compassion. It is the time to think about the millions of people who have fled war and violence, who are away from home and away from their family. Not only do they miss their loved ones, but many are also struggling with the exceptional circumstances stemming from COVID-19,” said Hatem. “I hope that a hot meal prepared with love helps them feel a little closer to home,” he added.
Unfortunately, the growing needs of the refugee and asylum seeker community in Egypt surpass a hot meal, and some were adamant about making this clear by rejecting this gesture, even if they cannot afford a hot meal for themselves or their families.
Determined, Arabiyet Elkheir proceeded to other densely-populated refugee neighbourhoods where most distributions progressed smoothly, even if the frustration was still palpable and strongly felt by residents and refugees.
Placed within the broader context of the situation of refugees and asylum-seekers in Egypt, where 258,910 of them are currently hosted, these sentiments stand out starkly. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, vulnerability assessments conducted by UNHCR showed that eight out of ten refugees in Egypt were unable to meet their basic needs and were forced to resort to negative coping strategies such as living on credit and sending school-age children to work.
With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing crisis, the Egyptian government imposed a partial lockdown since mid-March that restricts mobility and significantly reduces the working hours of many businesses. This has had a direct and far-reaching socio-economic impact on refugees and asylum-seekers, making them particularly vulnerable and driving them further into precarity.
Food, clothes and medical treatment require a lot of money and I have nothing
Many refugees and asylum-seekers, who were working in the informal sector, have lost their already humble livelihoods and are not able to provide basic needs to their families. Many are even threatened by eviction or worse, have already been evicted from their homes for not being able to pay rent.
“This coronavirus crisis cost me my job,” said Hasnaa, a 45-year-old Syrian refugee who sought asylum in Egypt in 2013 after her husband died in the war. “I do not know how I will be able to meet the needs of my children. Food, clothes and medical treatment require a lot of money and I have nothing,” she added.
Hasnaa is one of thousands of refugees who are unable pay rent and risk being evicted from their homes. And while UNHCR works with partners to secure shelter for as many refugee families, the need dwarfs the available resources and more short-term measures and long-term interventions need to be put in place.
UNHCR strives to continue delivery of its protection and assistance services against a backdrop of curtailed movement, limited face-to-face interaction and overarching funding shortfalls. It is also ensuring compliance with the decisions adopted by the Egyptian authorities mid-March, which have ushered in a reduction of its activities.
While doing so, UNHCR ensured continuity of its critical programs mainly from remote. The agency’s four premises in Cairo, 6th of October City and Alexandria remain open, albeit on reduced capacity to respond to priority emergency cases.
UNHCR has also adopted a range of virtual and remote communication tools to allow refugees and asylum-seekers to reach UNHCR, ask questions, and convey their concerns. For example, protection, reception and counselling activities take place through telephone calls and e-mails, and follow-up and advocacy on arrest/detention related matters continue uninterrupted.
Furthermore, essential services related to Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) and Child Protection remain, with prioritization of emergency cases. New arrivals are being recorded by e-mails or phone calls pending resumption of formal registration. Interviews for registration, RSD, resettlement and voluntary repatriation, however, are postponed, except for emergency cases.
Since the beginning of the crisis, UNHCR has continued to disburse its monthly multi-purpose cash assistance to 40,449 individuals. The cash assistance for the month of May was supplemented by an additional one-off special grant for hygiene items, in a bid to soften the blow against those most affected by the pandemic and its repercussions.
In addition, more than 40, 400 individuals who were not on UNHCR’s regular monthly cash list benefitted from a one-time special grant, also in May, to cover the cost of hygiene items. This was coupled with distributing hygiene products received as a gift from Rotary Egypt.
Nafeesa, a 34-year-old Sudanese refugee living in Egypt since 2009 is one of those refugees and asylum seekers who receive monthly cash assistance. “I feel ashamed every time I have to borrow money,” said Nafeesa. “I used to work as a Henna artist, adorning the hands of brides-to-be before their weddings. But since the lockdown, I have not been hired. Although the cash assistance I receive from UNHCR provides a lifeline for my family, it is not enough to cover our rent and feed my four children,” she added.
The pandemic has not only undermined the livelihoods of refugees and asylum-seekers, but it has also threatened their freedom of movement as many of them have not been able to renew their residency permits or UNHCR documentation.
Therefore, UNHCR has maintained close contacts with the national authorities, and has advocated for tolerance for persons of concern who currently hold expired documents due to mobility restrictions and reduction of services, pending resumption of document renewal services by UNHCR and by the Egyptian authorities.
I feel ashamed every time I have to borrow money
“UNHCR is extremely grateful to the Government of Egypt for treating refugees and asylum-seekers the same as nationals in its response to Covid-19,” said Mr. Karim Atassi, UNHCR Egypt Representative. From its side, UNHCR has provided 15,000 N95 surgical masks to the Ministry of Health and Population to support medical staff on the frontlines of the pandemic.
Nonetheless, the office still receives hundreds of calls through its infoline and emails from refugees and asylum-seekers reporting their inability to afford their essential needs after the majority of them had lost their jobs. This is coupled with mounting requests for food and financial assistance as many are at risk of eviction by their landlords. And while UNHCR and partners strive to deliver regular and additional special assistance to refugees and asylum-seekers, we are unable to meet the needs without additional support from the donor community.
“We are living unprecedented circumstances that require innovative ways to demonstrate international solidarity,” Mr. Atassi added, acknowledging the increasing needs of refugees exacerbated by these exceptional circumstances.
UNHCR is doing its best to provide the much-needed support but what has been offered so far barely covers the essentials of many refugee families, who are plunging deeper into debt and poverty.
Without additional support from its generous donors, UNHCR will not be able to respond to the refugees’ needs generated by this unforeseen and unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
The challenges borne by refugees and asylum-seekers in Egypt reverberate throughout refugee-hosting countries across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, where nearly 16 million persons of concern to UNHCR reside.
Those living on the margins of society are particularly at risk because they often have limited access to water, sanitation systems and health facilities, and cannot afford to lose their jobs. Therefore, following the updated United Nations COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan (GHRP), a revised UNHCR Global COVID-19 Appeal was issued on 11 May requesting USD 745 million until the end of 2020 for immediate needs in prioritized countries.
Reflecting the scale of the crisis, and in line with the GHRP and UNHCR’s Global COVID-19 appeal, UNHCR MENA’s comprehensive 2020 financial requirements for the COVID-19 preparedness and response is USD 343 million.
In Egypt, UNHCR is pleading for 10.2 million USD to help deliver its supplemental life-saving services under the COVID-19. To date, only 6.7% has been covered, signaling a severe funding gap and a looming crisis .