How COVID-19 is affecting Egypt’s migrants and refugees

By the Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies (CMRS), the American University in Cairo (AUC)

This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.
This blog is also a part of a thread looking more specifically at the impacts of and responses to the COVID-19 crisis on migration and developing countries.

Egypt-covid-19Egypt has one of the highest numbers of cases of COVID-19 in the African continent and as of August 5th, reported 94,875 cases, 4,930 deaths, and 47,182 recoveries. To curb the spread of the virus, borders and entry and exit pathways quickly closed in March, as international airports shut down to most air traffic, as did the land border crossing with Sudan. Since then Cairo International airport has re-opened as of July 1st. Egypt is a country of 100 million people with around 259,900 refugees and asylum-seekers officially registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). It also hosts an unspecified large number of unregistered asylum-seekers and refugees. Many of these refugees see Egypt as a transit country until they have the means to make an onward journey or to be resettled in the EU, US, Australia, or Canada. However, many of them end up staying in Egypt for years, contributing to the local economy. One impact of COVID-19 is that many of those waiting to be resettled, have now been left in limbo in their country of asylum. While the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR recently announced the re-opening of international resettlement, many travel restrictions remain in place.

In addition, international organisations within Egypt have been forced to change the way they operate. Large INGOs have had to stop in person services for the health and safety of staff and the communities they support. This has left many people unsure of how to receive cash-based assistance, for example, which they need for day-to-day survival, e.g. to pay for food, transportation, and rent. Furthermore, Egypt’s Authority for Administration of Passports, Immigration, and Nationality had stopped issuing residency permits, only recently reopening, causing a backlog for refugees who need to renew their residency permits every six months. This has left many with irregular status in Egypt.

Migrant workers contribute to the economy, often working in the informal sector, particularly in the hospitality and food industries. The closing of restaurants and cafes, and their recent reopening to only 25% capacity, along with the fear of allowing outside domestic workers inside, has caused for many migrant workers and refugees to lose their source of income. Unable to pay rent, stories of migrant evictions have become common, as have stories of up to ten people living in a single unit to have some form of shelter. As Egypt does not have camps, unlike its neighbours, all asylum seeking and refugee populations live in urban centres, usually in tight-spaced informal neighbourhoods, making it difficult to abide by social distancing guidelines. The impact this could have on the physical and mental health and well-being of vulnerable individuals will need to be followed closely over the coming months. Egypt has a strong legal framework for including at-risk populations in its public health sector, allowing access to public hospitals and clinics, thanks to the signing of the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees and a Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Health and Population and UNHCR. However, limited resources render this entitlement unstable.

Egypt’s economy is also threatened by the stringent lockdown policies imposed in countries of primary destination for Egyptian migrants. As the highest sending country of migrant workers in the region, Egypt relies heavily on remittances to help boost its local economy. In 2019, Egypt received 26.4 USD billion in remittances, making it one of the top five receivers globally. However, Egyptian migrant workers abroad, namely in Jordan and the Gulf, have been rendered vulnerable due to COVID-19, jeopardising Egypt’s influx of remittances. Similar drastic impacts to the economy and mobility in these receiving countries have made migrant workers susceptible to the economic woes of their hosts. Jordan had a strict lockdown strategy which has only recently eased to lift curbs on economic activity, though it has pressured migrant workers to leave amidst the pandemic. A recent study shows that approximately 125,760 Egyptians work in Jordan and 636,270 Egyptian migrants reside there, making it the second-highest migrant destination country for Egypt. Having recently been forced to compete with Syrian migrant workers for employment, only time will tell how Egypt’s 40 year history of working in Jordan will be altered by how the country deals with COVID-19.

In the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, a spike in COVID-19 cases has led to a varying degree of travel restrictions, with Kuwait banning all commercial flights and Saudi Arabia banning travel to 39 countries, including Egypt. A Migration Policy Institute report states that the top three GCC countries for Egyptian emigration are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. According to a New York Times article, the economic impact and ensuing anti-migrant rhetoric in these countries have also been harsh. On May 5th, 5,300 Egyptians were repatriated from Kuwait after it emerged that they had been detained in eleven shelters, after their visas had expired, unable to leave due to travel restrictions. The BBC reported that when the Egyptians had protested their country’s slow response to their situation, they were met with tear gas from the Kuwaiti police. An undisclosed number of Egyptians were also evacuated from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. According to Dina Abdel Fattah, Economics professor at the American University in Cairo, while aggregated data is difficult to come by, according to her personal estimates, approximately 1 million Egyptian migrant workers may return to Egypt due to the pandemic in 2020. Whether the returnees will integrate into the Egyptian labour market or return to the Gulf once borders reopen, due to high demand for their skills, remains to be seen.

As COVID-19 challenges the way migration and development operate, one can already see through Egypt, that changes and innovations will have to occur. As Egypt has eliminated the cost of tourist visas to the governorates of South Sinai, Marsa Matrouh and the Red Sea until October 31st, it would be beneficial to lower or eliminate the cost of residency permits, especially for refugees who have to renew their permits every six months. The Egyptian government should also include refugees and migrants in the social protection programmes announced for citizens. Moreover, organisations that work with refugees and migrants need to improve their communication with each other and the communities they serve, ensuring timely and multilingual dissemination of information. As the COVID-19 crisis in countries of destination will affect migrant workers’ income, the evolution of the volume of their remittances will have to be monitored. Information on opportunities for returnees to invest their savings should also be disseminated. Finally, labour market policy measures should match labour demand with returnees’ skills, offering them training opportunities and guiding them in the creation of their own small enterprises.