Saad al-Haidari and his wife Ban (not their real names) fled Iraq to Egypt with their two children in 2006 after repeated death threats from Islamic militants who condemned their Muslim-Christian union. Though they now live in peace in the north African nation, they find themselves isolated and economically destitute.
“We know people who have returned to Iraq [from Egypt],” al-Haidari said. “They said ‘we’d rather die there than die of starvation here – at least we know people to bury us.’”
Al-Haidari’s mixed religious marriage and his work with the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation in Iraq were the stated reasons that militants bombed his Baghdad office in July 2006. While he survived that incident unhurt, he was later kidnapped, held for 15 days and tortured, he said. That was the last straw for him and soon after he managed to escape with this family to Egypt.
His story is one of thousands of tragic sequences of events told by Iraqis seeking refuge in Egypt.
70,000-150,000 Iraqis in Egypt
According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), of the estimated 2.2 million Iraqis who have fled their country since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, some 70,000 came to Egypt, although only 9,932 of them were registered with the agency by the end of 2007.
|We’d rather die there [in Iraq] than die of starvation here [in Egypt] – at least we know people to bury us.|
However, various local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the Egyptian government estimate their number to be between 100,000 and 150,000.
While resettlement by UNHCR is hoped for but not necessarily forthcoming, some Iraqis in Egypt say they are returning home due to dried up funds, as opposed to security improvements.
Um Omar, a 58-year-old widow who arrived in Egypt about a year ago, said she was considering returning to Iraq due to a lack of alternatives, though she fears the violence she would face there. She told IRIN that last year two of her sister’s daughters were killed when a bomb went off in a mosque in the al-Kah’kh neighbourhood of Baghdad.
“I am between heaven and hell,” she said. “Life in Baghdad is expensive and I am scared to return.”
Photo: Sarah Kamshoshy/IRIN
|Because of work restrictions on Iraqis living in Egypt, many work illegally, such as in the bakery pictured|
Status of refugees in Egypt
Though Egypt signed the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, it made some reservations: refugees cannot work in Egypt without a work permit and access to services is very limited. As a result, working in Egypt is practically impossible for refugees, unless they opt for work in the informal sector, as house maids, for example.
Iraqis have seen little help from the Egyptian government, which is hardly able to subsidise its own citizenry, and they are sometimes wrongly perceived by the Egyptian population as being wealthy and therefore self-sustaining, said Barbara Harrell-Bond, a professor of forced migration and refugee studies at the American University of Cairo.
“The destitution is just terrible - it’s just terrible to face these people,” said Harrell-Bond. “The window of opportunity for them is to be resettled.”
Poverty and mistrust
With resettlement slow to come, Iraqis continue to eke out an existence in Egypt, often in isolation of other Iraqis as mistrust exists between the various sectarian groups living there.
“Iraqis don’t trust each other because they don’t know who is who. They are incapable of making social networks - you can’t live anywhere in the world without a social network,” Harrell-Bond said.
|If I go back, I will be killed. I have been threatened with murder.|
Al-Haidari and his family have been in Egypt for almost a year and a half. With a meagre income and a monthly rent bill of 1,200 Egyptian pounds (US$219), he is borrowing money to keep a roof over his family’s head. Only his eldest child is in school as he can only afford tuition fees and stationary supplies for one child.
“My financial situation is difficult. I can’t stay here – there is no money,” he said.
But for many refugees living in Egypt, returning to Iraq means facing probable death, al-Haidari said, adding that many of their names are on militia black lists.
“If I go back, I will be killed. I have been threatened with murder,” he said. “There is a 90 percent chance that I won’t even get to my house.”