Syrian refugees’ road to Europe comes to a halt in Egypt

More than 120,000 Syrians have been given asylum in Egypt but conditions are dismal

"This," says Ibrahim Talal, sweeping his hand in a dismissive gesture that takes in the teeming high-rise of Alexandria, a city of five million crushed up against the Mediterranean, "is not where I want to be."

“There – his outstretched arm points out to sea, beyond the harbour and the heat haze – “is where I want to be. Europe.”

Europe may lie a direct boat-ride from this crumbling Egyptian port city, but for Talal and thousands of other Syrians still fleeing the fighting in their country, it has never been so far away.

With a complex war dragging on at home, refugees still stream out of Syria in search of a safe haven and a better life. Yet the world has stopped noticing, as the shutters are rolled down on the traditional exit routes through Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey.


Just one path of escape, visa-free and relatively affordable, remains. Those with aspirations to make it to the West must as a first step fly south to Sudan before heading overland through the desert to Egypt.

Up to 50,000 Syrians have arrived in Egypt this year. Most have entered Egypt illegally via this southern corridor, using the services of roving bands of smugglers.

“The other options for Syrians fleeing their homes are closed up now. That’s why they come here, and to be reunited with other families,” explains Aseer al-Madaien, head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) operation in Alexandria.

Crowded tower blocks

But from Egypt, the road leads nowhere. For Talal, and increasing numbers of refugees, the trek north is coming to an abrupt halt by the shores of the Mediterranean in Alexandria or even earlier, in Cairo’s crowded tower blocks.

Last year, hundreds of refugees died off this coast when a heavily-laden boat capsized. But the falloff in people smuggling across the Mediterranean also stems from a crackdown by the Egyptian authorities on the traffickers, inspired by promises of aid from Western countries.

Al-Madaien says her officials identified 5,000 refugees who were intercepted by police last year while attempting to cross the sea; this year, just 136 have been caught.

“The refugees are saying they don’t want to take the risk,” she says. “In addition, the message they are getting from Europe is not the same; they feel they are not as welcome as before. Here in Egypt, they are somewhat settled. They’re managing.”

That Talal is not further north today is not for the want of trying. With his wife and seven-year-old son, he left home in Homs in March 2016 for Lebanon, paying a smuggler $1,000 to guide his family over the mountains. He was smuggled further to Turkey where he arranged for a boat to carry them to Europe.

One of the girls asks what I would do if I were in her situation. It is a surprisingly hard question to answer

He waited a month by the coast for his family to catch up. However, the $800 visa his wife bought for the border crossing from Turkey turned out to fake, he says. He was left with a difficult choice: "I wanted to go to Germany but I did not want to travel without my wife, who was stuck."

So the family re-united in Sudan, but with no work available in Khartoum, staying there was not an option. "We were introduced to a smuggler who put 30 people into two pick-up cars. The drivers were drugged so they could go fast on the desert road," says Talal.

“Near the border we were left under the sun for 10 hours before the Sudanese smugglers passed us over to some Egyptians. I felt humiliated and badly treated.”

Other refugees offer up similar hair-raising tales of their journey from Sudan. "If a baby falls from the car, they don't stop," says Haifa Koraida, who made the five-day journey with her husband and two children earlier this year.

"Bébé tombé [baby fell]," another woman interjects by way of explanation before showing me a picture of the flat-back car driven across the Sahara by her smugglers. Other women offer up tales, fanciful it would seem, of traffickers trading in human organs.

Koraidi says she is happy in Egypt and “fits in” but would leave immediately if an opportunity to take a boat to Europe presented itself.


Today, Talal is stranded in a country, and a continent, he never intended to make his home. Going back to Syria is not an option; he says a dim view would be taken of his flight from a government job in civil defence.

“If I had the money I would try again to get a boat. But for now I hope to be settled,” Talal says, resignation palpable in his voice. Given the current political environment in Europe, the chances of getting on a refugee settlement scheme are slight.

Currently, there are 209,000 refugees registered in Egypt. Most are from Syria but 87,000 come from other countries – Iraq, Yemen, sub-Saharan Africa.

There might be a drop in the ocean in a country with a population of 92 million but the flow of Syrian arrivals is rising – the 50,000 that arrived in the first half of this year compares to 45,000 in the whole of 2016.

Egypt is one of the few countries in the developing world that does not house refugees in camps, and allows freedom of movement. Those who register with the UNHCR get residency and cannot be deported. Most Syrians who have come here live in cities, surrounded by people from their own community.

"Syrian refugees here enjoy a good asylum space, but conditions are not the best," says Aldo Biondi of the European Commission's humanitarian aid office, Echo. "They find themselves caught in a protracted and deteriorating situation. Concentrated in the poorest parts of the most overcrowded cities, they are increasingly vulnerable."

Egypt is one of the few countries in the developing world that does not house refugees in camps, and allows freedom of movement

Those most at risk can apply for cash transfers funded by Echo, worth about €40 a month to a family, to help meet basic needs. The EU and other donors also fund a variety of health, education and training projects designed to mitigate their situation and help them integrate better.

At the Syria Al-Gad education centre in the city of Obour, near Cairo, Egyptian women account for one in five of those learning skills such as dressmaking and photography, or taking remedial classes to make up for lost years of education. "We get them together, so that they understand they have the same culture and language. It's the beginning of integration," says project co-ordinator Eman Murphy, a Palestinian woman married to a Dubliner.

Greater integration

Some trends towards greater integration have caused dismay among donors, however. The United Nations Population Fund says that for the first time it is coming across cases of female genital mutilation in Syrian refugee families. Despite it being illegal, Egypt has a 92 per cent rate of FGM and its emergence among the refugee population may be driven by cultural pressure in their new home, according to the agency.

Although they can’t work, many refugees have ended up in the employ of wealthier Syrians who came here illegally at the start of the war and are running restaurants and other businesses. But even this latter group is feeling the pinch as economy struggles.

The  United Nations Population Fund says that for the first time it is coming across cases of female genital mutilation in Syrian refugee families

Life in Egypt is getting harder, for refugees and locals alike. The imposition of austerity measures has let to a doubling of fuel prices while the Egyptian pound has plummeted in value since November. Reports of human rights abuses have multiplied amid the political turbulence of the past few years while tourism has collapsed.

"Here it is good, but not good enough," Noour Drubi, a mother of three boys tells me in a family centre in Cairo funded by the UN's agency for children, Unicef. "Things are getting tougher here. We get treated badly as Syrians and there isn't enough to live on."

After five years in Egypt, the family's savings are gone and she has no money to renew her passport. Her boys have health issues – delayed speech, bedwetting – that can be traced back to the trauma caused by the bombing of their home in Damascus during the war.

Back at the Al-Gad centre, I ask a group of about 35 girls how many have family members in Europe. Most hands go up. How many would like to go to Europe? Most hands go up again. Sweden, where some of the girls have brothers living, is the most popular destination mentioned.

We talk about the difficulty of getting to Europe: the cost; the perilous journey by boat; the lack of a warm welcome in countries already refugee-fatigued.

One of the girls asks what I would do if I were in her situation. It is a surprisingly hard question to answer.

Egypt, despite its shortcomings, treats Syrians better than any other Arab country, according to one Syrian student. It is, he says, “the best of the worst”.

* Paul Cullen’s visit to Egypt was funded by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations