The Ordeal of African Refugees in Egypt

Wednesday 14 March 201808:27 pm
Omar Saleh, a Cameroonian man in Cairo, avoids human interaction during his daily commute to work for fear of verbal abuse. "While walking in the street or using any means of transport, I would hear things like 'you're all over the country, we have enough troubles already'," he told Raseef22. The harassment Saleh and other black people regularly put up with in Egypt pressed photographer Reem Akl to document their suffering. "I see the racism and rejection they face," she told Raseef22. "So I decided to take photos of their misery as evidence for the inhuman treatment they experience. While working on her project, Akl said she realized that job opportunities available for Africans in Egypt were very limited. "They take up lowly jobs compared to their skills; they work as cooks, drivers or maids," she said. "They are abused and underpaid."

African Refugees

Between 1950 and 1960 many people from African nations started seeking asylum in Egypt due to political oppression in their countries. Today, Sudanese and Somali refugees comprise the largest two segments of the African population in Egypt. The number of African refugees in Egypt has further increased since 1990 due to conflicts in the Horn of Africa, including in Ethiopia and Eritrea, according to a study conducted by the Democratic Arabic Center for Strategic, Political and Economic Studies (DAC). In 2005, 25 Sudanese refugees were killed when Egyptian security forces dispersed the Cairo sit-in they staged in front of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' office protesting their poor living conditions. According to recent statistics released by the commissioner, Egypt is hosting 217,813 refugees from around 60 countries, including Syria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, South Sudan, Iraq and Yemen. However, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi during a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the number of refugees in Egypt was estimated at five million, including many who did not enter the country through legal avenues. According to an investigative documentary by German journalist Thilo Mischke, African refugees, especially the Sudanese, fall victims to organ trafficking in Egypt. Another investigative report by the Coalition for Organ Failure Solutions (COFS) said they were either forced to sell their organs or lured with money. While Egyptian authorities strenuously deny such claims, another video report by Egyptian journalist Hoda Zakaria highlights that black Africans are subject to violence, harassment, rape and organ trafficking.

Racial Slurs

Hassan Qamar Al-Din, a Sudanese refugee who has been residing in Egypt for ten years, is mocked every day. "I don't reply to insults... I don't want any troubles," he told Raseef22. Qamar Al-Din, who studies at Al-Azhar University, says many Egyptians treat Africans badly because of "their dark skin".  A man once tried to kick him out of a mosque because he is black, he recalled, but the Imam stepped in and defused the tension. Qamar Al-Din does not summon enough courage to stand up for himself, unlike Cameroonian Omar Saleh who usually replies to harassers' comments and refers to verses of the Quran to make them feel guilty. "Some of us are afraid to talk to anyone so they don't get in trouble, but I cannot stand what some people call us," Saleh said. Black individuals are often called "chocolate" by random pedestrians in Egypt. They might also be referred to as "Shika", the nickname of renowned dark-skinned Egyptian footballer Shikabala, or "Bakar", the name of a cartoon character from Nubia, south of Egypt. "Does it hurt anyone that I'm black? Does my color mean I have to be an outcast and be patronized?" Saleh deplored.

Harassment and Exploitation

Africans live in certain districts across Cairo, including Ard Al-Lewa, Maadi and Ein Shams. In each of these districts, there are coffee-shops where they meet. Most of them would not talk to strangers, yet Hassnaa M. who lives in Ard Al-Lewa spoke of her eight-year stay in Egypt. "I'm subject every day to harassment and stoning," the Eritrean woman told Raseef22. "People would mock me and look at me condescendingly if I wore my country's traditional outfit." A trader once sold Hassnaa an item at a higher price. She rebuked him when she found out he had charged her extra money for no reason, and hence he beat her. When asked why she did not report the assault to the police, Hassnaa replied: "What would they do?" According to a DAC study, Africans are subject to racism in Egypt because of the color of their skin. They are prone to robbery, sexual harassment and organ trafficking, among other crimes.

What Do Egyptians Think?

Hamada Magdi, one of Ard Al-Lewa's Egyptian residents and an owner of a mobile shop, sees no problem in living alongside African refugees. "There are too many of them," he told Raseef22. "But they make me gain more because they buy a lot of items at any prices, unlike Egyptians." For his side, Rafat Amin, another Egyptian resident of Ard Al-Lewa, thinks the presence of Africans in the area is worrying because their traditions are different from Egyptians'. "They increased the greed of traders and the housing cost," he said to Raseef22. "They have occupied Ard Al-Lewa."

Gap Between Egypt and Africa

Former foreign minister Amr Moussa explained in his memoir that "although Egypt supported the national liberation movements in the 1950s and 1960s... The Egyptian-African relations took a turn for the worse during the era of Egyptian President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak". Moussa said Mubarak prioritized his safety over Egypt's African ties, having missed most African summits because he was doubtful about security in most African nations, especially after his assassination attempt in Addis Ababa in 1995. These days, the crisis of Ethiopia's Renaissance Dam casts light on Egypt's diminishing role in Africa. The Egyptian media, meanwhile, does not report African affairs except when El-Sisi mentions any in his speeches, according to researcher Rasha Ramzy. "The media is the mouthpiece of the political power when it comes to Africa," she told Raseef22. Ramzy pointed out that the International Forum of African Cultures, which took place in Upper Egypt's Aswan last November, "was not covered by any media outlets except for [Sudan's] Tayba TV channel". She hailed such events as a "pathway" between Egypt and Africa, saying they require more media attention. On top of that, she believes that the Egyptian media is responsible to a great extent for tarnishing the image of Africans. "The African, as pictured by the Egyptian media, is the primitive individual who's looking for food on top of a tree with no understanding of civilization, and is a source of malaria and cholera," she said.


Egyptian psychiatrist Mohamed El-Shamy wrote on Facebook about the misery of four African girls who suffered severe depression and suicidal tendencies for being the target of constant verbal and physical harassment in Egypt. One of them even came close to being raped in the street, El-Shamy said. The suffering of the girls, aged between 4 and 15, urged El-Shamy to launch an anti-racism campaign on social media, which gathered various testimonies from Egyptians who witnessed racist acts. El-Shamy blamed this behavior on a deterioration in morality in Egypt.

Why Africans Do Not Fit in

Refugees easily blend in with their new community when they share cultural, historical and religious background with the natives, according to the DAC study. This is why Syrian refugees, for instance, assimilate into the Egyptian culture better than Africans, who might face challenges such as the language barrier.
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