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Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA) was founded as a UK Charity in January 2003, (Registered Charity No. 1098788), to promote the development of pro bono legal aid and for refugees in countries where such services. The awareness of this need came out of several years of research in Africa and the Mediterranean region that exposed the appalling conditions in which most refugees live and the failure of states to protect them. We use the term refugee to describe any person who has fled their home country to seek safety in Egypt, whether or not they have been officially recognized as a refugee by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
AMERA UK provides funding and support to AMERA Egypt. We’ve come a long way over the past 10 years. Through our work we came to understand that provision of legal advice and representation was not enough when the refugees we were helping had problems finding food, shelter, education, basic health services, safety and other essentials. Today, AMERA tries to provide holistic services to any refugee that comes to us for assistance.
What does this mean? AMERA operates two programs; legal and psychosocial. Each program comprises a number of teams that provide wraparound services to refugees at our offices and in refugee communities. We have never and will never charge refugees for any of the services we provide.
AMERA’s legal teams:
- The RSD Team provides assistance, advice and representation to any person who has fled persecution in their home country in their application to be recognized as a refugee made to the Cairo Regional Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
- The Durable Solutions Team assists the most vulnerable of refugees in applications for resettlement to safe third countries
- AMERA’s Egyptian lawyers assist refugees who are experiencing problems in Cairo, usually issues related to their safety arising from the hostility of the local population to refugee communities, particularly those from sub-Saharan Africa. They help at police stations, at prosecutors’ offices and in courts, and they help secure documentation, such as birth, marriage and death certificates, essential to access the scarce services available.
AMERA’s psychosocial teams seek to assist the whole individual and their specific needs:
- The Psychosocial Team provides a very broad range of services, helping clients individually or in groups with mental and physical health problems and those struggling to adapt to life in Cairo
- The Unaccompanied Children and Youth Team provides specialist services to those who fled persecution and war and came to Egypt without their parents. These refugees are often the most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation
- The Sexual and Gender Based Violence Team provides dedicated services to survivors, and helps those who have experienced or continue to experience this violence in Cairo
All of our teams could not function without the skilled assistance and care or our Community Facilitators, refugees who interpret and translate but also provide other help to refugees in our offices and in the community. Our Community Outreach Team, a team of five refugees representing the five main communities we serve (Syria, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia) ensures that we understand the needs, challenges and strengths of refugee communities and they facilitate our work provided directly in community settings.
So what does this mean in practice? It means that a 15-year-old girl trafficked to Cairo without her family and a survivor of rape can get help to find safe housing in a refugee community, she can get assistance to receive medical care and testing for sexually transmitted infections, she can be accompanied to a police station to file a police report, she can receive advice and representation in getting identity documents and recognition as a refugee to prevent her from being forcibly returned to her home country. Then our teams can help her to access education, to teach her tips on how to get by in an alien environment, to help her to meet other young people in similar situations from her own and other communities, and assist her in applying to move to another country if she is still not safe. She doesn’t have to tell her story again and again to different people, she doesn’t have to travel to different organizations not able to cater for all her needs. Our professional, skilled and caring staff will do all that they can to make ensure she is safe, healthy and happy.
We have 67 staff, half of them are refugees. We also rely heavily on a further 25 or so volunteer staff from Egypt, refugee communities and overseas. We work from three stories of a building in Maadi, in the south of Cairo. Our staff earn ‘local wages’, which together with our use of skilled volunteers means, for example, that the staffing costs for our 15-person refugee status determination legal team is about £1300 per month. Everything we do is directed to providing the maximum benefit to refugees at the lowest cost.
Egypt hosts the fifth largest urban refugee population in the world. Although officially there are only around 95,000 refugees in Egypt and about 19,000 asylum seeking people, unofficial estimates range from 500,000 asylum seekers and refugees upwards from 35 different nationalities. Many refugees are from Africa, the majority being from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. But there are also large refugee populations from Palestine and Iraq. Most recently, Egypt has begun hosting large numbers of Syrians, estimated at some 250,000, around 45,000 of whom are known to UNHCR.
No one in Egypt was providing legal aid and psycho-social services until AMERA (formerly known as Refugee Legal Aid Project) began in 2000. As the main provider of pro bono legal aid and psycho-social support in Egypt, AMERA has established working relationships with UNHCR, national and international NGOs and human rights networks, and other refugee service providers. These connections enable it to effectively advocate for refugee rights individually and in wider policy settings.
Egypt is generally tolerant of refugees and asylum seekers on its territory. A party to both the 1951 UN and 1969 OAU refugee conventions, long before ratification in 1981, Egypt alerted UNHCR Geneva of its reservations to several of the articles regarding elementary education, public relief, the right to work, social security and personal status. This is especially significant as regards the right to work, leaving refugees dependent on the informal economy and increasing the risk of exploitation and abuse.
A Senior Protection Officer with the Canadian Branch Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provided the following description of life for refugees in Egypt:
Given Egypt's cost of living, UNHCR-recognized refugees cannot expect to cover even the cost of renting a room, with the limited subsistence allowance provided by UNHCR. They must also secure their own food, as Egypt has made a reservation under Article 20 of the 1951 Convention, which excludes refugees from government-subsidized distribution of food products to certain vulnerable categories of Egyptian nationals.
Prospects for employment of refugees are limited in view of the Egyptian government's reservation to Article 24 of the 1951 Convention – combined with the economic situation and domestic regulations related to the employment of foreigners. The children of refugees recognized by UNHCR do not have access to free public education in view of Egypt's reservation to Article 22(1) of the 1951 Convention. During 1999, UNHCR was able to assist just over 1,100 refugee children to go to school, but again, education programs are limited by scarce funds. Similarly, in view of Egypt's reservation under Article 23 of the 1951 Convention, related to public relief, refugees do not have access to government-supplied medical care.
A commentator from the University of London provided the following description of the situation of refugees in Egypt, made worse by the 2011 revolution and the insecurity and economic decline it has caused:
Because Egypt entered key reservations to the 1951 Refugee Convention on personal status, public relief, education, and employment, the state was able to turn a blind eye to the most basic needs of refugees. In practical terms, these reservations prohibit refugees from access to public health care, food rationing, employment, and education. And while there are no camps or settlements in Egypt, the corollary has been that refugees are at once relegated to and hidden by the shadows of Cairo’s sha’bi (popular) districts, where they are self-settled and almost entirely self-reliant. Living in poverty and without any recourse to the law, refugees eke out a hand-to-mouth existence. In these circumstances, daily life has become dangerous for the most vulnerable refugees. That some have died—and others will die—due to a lack of adequate healthcare, has been a fact of refugee life in Egypt.
The net effect of Egypt’s reservations and the operation of its nationality laws excludes refugees from a means of subsistence and social inclusion. Together they create a perception among the host population of migrants living illegally and in direct competition for scarce resources. Worse still, refugee individuals faced with very little likelihood of integration or the means to ensure their own survival seek alternative destinations with little regard as to whether these may be accessed safely or legally. Some die in their attempts to enter Israel or make it across the Mediterranean.
AMERA-UK is a member of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) in Geneva which organizes, in co-operation with UNHCR, the Pre-ExCom meetings where NGOs can lobby for improvements in policy. ExCom refers to a group of representatives of governments who are on the Executive Committee of UNHCR
 Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Egypt: Follow up to EGY34538.E of 9 June 2000 regarding the protection and assistance offered to Sudanese refugees by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 8 September 2000, EGY35551.E, http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/3df4be2c34.html.
 Robert Lawrence McKenzie (University of London), In the Shadows of Cairo’s Revolution: Reflections on Refugees and Their Human Rights, http://www.anthropology-news.org/index.php/2012/02/10/february-mes-news