Aspiring to be model in the region for guaranteeing protections to refugee and asylum seeking Syrians, proposed changes to Egypt’s citizenship laws appear instead to deny the right to nationality and put vulnerable people at risk of statelessness
Egypt has long been a country hosting refugees and asylum-seekers, whether it is their final destination or they are hoping to transit from there to other places. Egypt is currently the home of over 200,000 refugees and asylum seekers of 63 different nationalities, over half of whom have fled the war-torn country of Syria. Egypt has committed to , and aspires to be a , guaranteeing their rights and taking a firm stance against the establishment of camps, which can lead to ghettoisation. The Government of Egypt has policies that allow refugees and asylum seekers to regularise their residency, grant six-month renewable residency permits and allow for family reunification. Despite its difficult economic situation, Egypt guarantees full access for Syrian refugees to public education and health care services on equal footing with Egyptian nationals, as well as subsidized services provided by the State to Egyptian citizens, such as energy, transportation and food. However, as yet, this does not extend to other groups.
Egypt works with the UNHCR to mainstream birth registration for refugees, fulfilling a core element of the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan. Through these initiatives the vast majority of Syrian refugee children born in the country have been successfully registered at birth, giving refugee children a stronger foundation for protection against risks such as family separation, trafficking and statelessness. However, recently proposed changes to Egypt’s citizenship laws may severely weaken these important protections.
Under proposed changes approved by the Cabinet, Egyptian nationality (whether acquired at birth or through naturalisation) can be withdrawn “if [a person] joins any group, association, body, organization, gang or any entity of any nature with the aim of harming the public order of the state or to undermine the social and economic order by force or by any unlawful means”. If adopted, the ambiguous nature of the changes may put naturalised refugees (including refugee-born children) at risk of statelessness, if the Egyptian Government at any point considers a group to which they belong or have belonged, to undermine the social or economic order of the country.
While the exact number is unknown, the UNHCR estimates that there are at least 10 million stateless people globally. Statelessness can severely impact a person’s life: stateless people are usually politically disenfranchised, often cannot travel freely and may not be able to access public services including health care, education, and welfare support, they are at a greater risk of arbitrary arrest and detention due to their lack of nationality, and are more likely to face exploitation and abuse in the labour market.
Right to a nationality
While they do not appear to be aimed specifically at refugees or asylum seekers, the proposed changes go against recent developments towards the right to a nationality in the country. The Egyptian Government has reformed its citizenship laws allowing women to confer nationality to their children at birth, and acceded to the UN-backed Global Action Plan to End Statelessness in 2014 with a view to ending statelessness globally by 2024. In line with the UNHCR’s #ibelong campaign to end statelessness, it is critical that all nations explore avenues for increasing protection and documentation for all refugees and migrants, both those arriving before the trouble in Syria and those who will still be in need of support, in future. We encourage Egypt to continue to extend the services offered to Syrian refugees to all asylum seekers in the country and to consider the implications of proposed changes to its citizenship laws for naturalized refugees and asylum seekers.
This article was written by Paul Michaels while completing the IDC Communications Internship Program.