Background Briefing


Now host to as many as 150,000 Iraqis, Egypt too has taken steps to stem the arrival of more Iraqi refugees.  As in Jordan, this is causing separation of families, deepening the anxiety of refugees already in Egypt, and heightening the desperation of those still in Iraq trying to find a way out.

Egyptian authorities routinely renewed tourist visas for Iraqi nationals in Egypt until October or November 2006.  The Egyptian Ministry of Interior is now becoming stricter in renewing tourist visas, telling Iraqis that if they wish to remain in Egypt they should register with UNHCR-Cairo.  Subsequently, the UN refugee office has been seeing an increase in Iraqis seeking refugee registration.  After UNHCR issues documents to them, they must go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to receive a reference number.  From there, they must go to the Ministry of Interior to put a residency stamp on their UNHCR card. 

In early January 2007 the Egyptian authorities began imposing highly restrictive new procedures for Iraqis seeking entry.  Previously, Iraqis still in Iraq could obtain a tourist visa by giving their passports to a travel agent in Baghdad who would take the passports to the Egyptian consulates in Damascus or Amman for processing.  Now, however, the Egyptian authorities are requiring face-to-face interviews by at least one family member at their consulates, and the numbers are dropping because the Iraqis cannot get to Syria or Jordan.  Because there is no Egyptian diplomatic post in Baghdad, it is virtually impossible now for Iraqis still in Iraq to obtain a visa for Egypt.

The result of the new procedures has meant a significant drop in new Iraqi arrivals as well as split families, where one or more family member has made it to Egypt, but other family members are still in Iraq.

Although Human Rights Watch is not aware of any cases in which the Egyptian authorities have deported Iraqi visa-overstayers or sent back persons rejected at the airport to Iraq, Human Rights Watch did hear of Iraqis arriving from Syria and Jordan being returned to those countries.  Although relatives reported that the Syrian immigration authorities accept the returnees, refugees in Jordan reported that Iraqis who were returned to Jordan from Egypt were apprehended at the airport and deported to Iraq.

A Sunni engineer who came from a mixed neighborhood in Baghdad left for Jordan after what he termed a “government militia” checked his identity documents at a checkpoint when he was in his car with his wife and children and threatened to arrest him on the spot.  “They wanted to arrest me just because I am Sunni,” he said.  He said that he had wanted to go directly to Cairo, but that the visa process was too slow.  “We put in an urgent request for passports, and then we got out; we grabbed a taxi to the Jordanian border.” 

He explained that he did not stay in Jordan because the Jordanians did not allow him to renew his temporary residence permit there.  “You have to pay a fine of 1.5 Jordanian dinars [equal to US$2] for every day you don’t have a residency permit in Jordan.  Only rich people can stay in Jordan.”  He added, “We chose Egypt because we were told Egypt is cheaper than Jordan and Syria, and because Syria has started to see some militias.  There are kidnappings inside Syria.  The sectarian violence has crossed into Syria.”

He said that they were able to get an Egyptian visa from a travel agent in Jordan, and that the process took about two weeks.  They flew from Amman to Cairo on August 3, 2006.  He said, “When we came from Jordan, we were the only Iraqis on the plane.  Most Iraqis in Egypt come from Syria or directly from Baghdad.”

However, the new procedures have choked the direct route from Baghdad to Cairo.  “My parents and siblings are still in Baghdad,” he said.  “I have not heard anything from my parents for two or three weeks now [tears came to his eyes when he said this].  They don’t have any money to leave Iraq.  They can’t get visas.”

Another man living in Cairo, who described himself as a secular Ba`thist from Haditha in Anbar province, left after U.S. forces arrested and detained him for seven months.  He feared what might happen to him if they arrested him again, and also had a growing unease about the growing power of both Sunni and Shi`a militias because of what he saw as their religious extremism.  He came straight from Baghdad to Cairo on June 1, 2005.  He said that it is not safe for his relatives who are still living in Iraq.  “Every day they receive calls at the house with threats.”  But, he said, there are problems now with getting Egyptian visas for his family members.  “This is very difficult.”  When asked by Human Rights Watch if his family was planning to leave, he answered, “Where are they going to go?”

An Iraqi man in his late 20’s, living in Alexandria, voiced the growing difficulties for Iraqi nationals in maintaining Egyptian residency and family unity in the face of increasing entry restrictions.  He arrived in Egypt in September 2006 and received a one-month residence permit.  After he went to renew the residency permit, his problems started:

It was November 20, 2006, after Eid, the end of Ramadan, when state security came to my door.  They took me and questioned me about why I had come to Egypt.  I said that I had fled from the war in Iraq.  They told me that Egypt does not give residence to Iraqis.  They told me to go to the Passport Office.  I went there in early December 2006.  They told me that my application was denied.  They wanted my passport so they could stamp it saying that I must leave Egypt.  I grabbed my passport and ran.  I have been in Egypt illegally ever since then.  When I leave Egypt, I will have to pay a fine for overstaying my visa.

The man’s troubles did not end there.  His wife and children had fled to Syria and wanted to join him in Egypt.  They had been waiting in Syria for one month for the visa process in Egypt to be completed.  In early March 2007 they flew to Cairo.

They had their tickets, and they had their visas.  When they arrived at the airport in Cairo, the Egyptians denied them entry.  They detained them for one night.  The Egyptian authorities contacted me on my cell phone.  At the time, I was at the airport waiting for my wife and children.  The authorities told me I should come back to the airport the next day.  I discovered that they had put my wife and children on a plane back to Syria.  They were admitted to Syria when they returned there.

The man has decided to go to Syria to join his wife and children, despite having a registration interview with UNHCR in Cairo for April 16.  He showed Human Rights Watch his plane ticket.  He said:

There are a lot of stories like my wife’s and my children’s.  My wife said that all the Iraqis who were on the same plane with her were also detained at the airport and then returned to Syria.  The only Iraqi to be admitted to Egypt was someone who had already acquired residency in Egypt.

Why are Iraqis treated this way?  It is not as if we are coming on holiday.  We fled from what was hell in Iraq.  These countries must leave their borders open.  Our choice is either to get killed or to leave.