Deportation from Cairo, 5 March 2004

 Oroub EL-ABED


Throughout my time doing research on Palestinian refugees in Egypt, I experienced interference from the Egyptian security authorities.  This has now culminated in being held at Cairo airport when on the way from my home in Amman, Jordan to present a paper in Cairo on the unprotected Palestinians in Egypt.  Later I was refused entry to Egypt and deported.


From Sept. 2001 to Sept. 2003, I was based in Cairo with the Forced Migration Refugee Studies Programme, American University in Cairo (AUC) where I taught a course on Palestinian refugee issues and conducted research on the livelihoods of Palestinian refugees of Egypt.


Background on the refugee issue

These Palestinians receive no protection, assistance or support from any United Nations body or from the host country. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) was never permitted to serve Palestinian refugees in Egypt as it does in other host countries from the time it was established in 1949. Moreover, Palestinian refugees in Egypt have been excluded from the protection of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Egypt ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention in 1981 but remained reluctant to be bound by the Convention, apparently out of a perceived conflict between the status for Palestinians favoured by the Arab League and that of the Convention, and also because for many years the PLO had opposed providing individual Palestinian refugees with the status of the 1951 Convention because this was considered prejudicial to the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.


Arab countries, including Egypt, argue that the Palestinian refugee problem is to be resolved on the basis of a special formula of repatriation and compensation rather than the formula commonly accepted for refugees at the time, resettlement in a third country. Hence, UNHCR, despite the recent reinterpretation of the article 1D of the 1951 Convention considering refugees who are not served by other UN bodies as ipso facto refugees and entitled to the benefits of the convention, does not provide protection to Palestinians refugees in Egypt.


Egypt in turn permits no citizenship rights to Palestinians who reside there and hold Egyptian Travel Documents. As of 1978, Palestinians were denied all basic human rights that once were granted to them by President Nasser. For the last 26 years, they have had no rights to free education, to employment, to property or business ownership or to association. They are treated as foreigners. As is the case for any foreigner in Egypt, applying for a residency permit has to be justified. An official document, such as school or university attendance or work contract, must be provided even if the person were born in Egypt. Otherwise, their stay in Egypt is illegal, the case of a great number of young Palestinians in Egypt.


Palestinians, with Egyptian travel documents, can use the document under two conditions:  to ensure re-entry, return to Egypt within six months or to apply for a return visa for one year by providing a work contract or proof of education enrolment abroad. If there is any delay in return, entry is denied.





State Security Attitude

While doing my research, I had encountered problems with the state security services. During field work, interviewing Palestinian families, I was summoned on 23 July 2002 to Lazoughli State Security department, and ordered to stop the interviews.  In September 2003, as I was preparing for a workshop to disseminate the findings of my research and after having invited people from abroad to participate in the discussions, security tried to cancel the event by meeting with the AUC provost and the director of the FMRS.  Fortunately, the university decided to proceed with the event, launch the executive summary report and discuss the research findings.


Six months after leaving Cairo and finishing my contract with AUC, I was invited to Cairo to present a paper at a conference held by BADIL (NGO based in Bethlehem) and Al Ahram Centre for Strategic Studies entitled CLOSING THE GAPS: FROM PROTECTION TO DURABLE SOLUTIONS FOR PALESTINIAN REFUGEES. 


Backstage at Cairo Airport

On arrival in Cairo airport at 12:15 on 5 March 2004, at the passport check I was asked to wait for my name to be called. My passport was held.


Five minutes later, I was called by a security guard who accompanied me through small tunnels to the non-public area of the airport arrival hall.  This led to a small corridor in the middle at which sat a policeman who asked me to write my name in his record book and to sit down. The corridor had two side exits. One led to a room full of Africans and Asians. It looked like a prison especially since a policeman was from time to time calling names, cuffing these persons and taking them out. The other end of the corridor looks over offices that later turned out to be State Security interrogation offices.


After 15 minutes, I was asked to join the prisoners in the crowded room. This tiny room leads to three small rooms with beds where many people were sleeping. This tiny waiting hall had one bathroom. Two hours after arrival, I was called for interrogation by the state security. Questions were: What do I do for living? What was I doing in Egypt for two years? What is, in general, the condition of Palestinians in Egypt? What are the negative/positive things that Egypt is doing for Palestinians? Why do I think Egypt changed its politics vis-à-vis the Palestinians in 1978?


After objectively answering the questions, based on my research, I was asked to leave. I then insisted that I should be told what would happen to me before I leave. I had to tell him bluntly, “ Since I come from another Arab country, I understand well that your country is not happy with the facts I am revealing and I understand that you do not welcome someone who tells the truth……..!”  My interrogator smiled.  I said, “I need to know what you will do to me”. He replied “in five minutes you will know”. Back to the little prison, within 15 minutes, a policeman came and asked me for my return ticket (Cairo-Amman).  I was then booked to leave on the next Royal Jordanian flight at 10:30 pm. It was 4:00 pm so I still had another 6 hours to go!


I felt that it would be useful to call the organisers of the conference and see what steps they could take. I asked several times to make a phone call but in vain. In addition, to make a phone call meant changing money to Egyptian currency, buying a telephone card and making the call.  For all this, I needed permission from the head of security and a policeman to accompany me through the process. I was therefore not able to contact anyone while in the little room backstage at the airport. In turn, while they had the flight details, I am not sure if BADIL or the al Ahram Center tried to reach me or to check on me.


At 8 p.m. sharp, I was called along with another Jordanian facing deportation to collect our bags and follow the policeman to check in our luggage. At the Royal Jordanian check-in, I was a problem!!  No seats were available and there was a waiting list of seven.  Fearful of having to sleep the night in the little prison, I had to beg the man to fit me in explaining I am not welcome in Egypt for security reasons and I must get out soon. Luckily,he sympathised and did fit me in.


After check-in, again we were asked to follow the policeman to the prison and wait there until boarding time 10:15 pm. The policeman accompanying us did not return our passports until we (the Jordanian man and I) were to get on the bus to take us to the plane. He seems to have been instructed not to trust us, fearing we would escape from his surveillance!


The Prison- The Tiny Waiting Hall

Of the many people who were in the waiting room, two cases drew my attention: A Palestinian, holding an Egyptian travel document was denied entry to Egypt since he overstayed his return visa. His mother is Egyptian and he was raised in Egypt where he remained until 15 years ago when he decided to leave and look for work elsewhere. Today, he works in Tanzania and was hoping to spend his holidays with his family in Cairo.  The Egyptian authorities, denying him entry, told him to seek a visa for another country. Through contacts of his wife, he was waiting for a visa from Russia. He was not sure when he would leave, but he had hopes of receiving his visa in another five days.


Meeting Egyptians in that hall was a surprise. They are held in this prison because they have been living illegally in several countries of the Middle East. Upon leaving these countries, they paid a fine for having illegally extended their stay in the host country, but they surely did not expect that Egypt, their homeland would also punish them for having lived illegally abroad. They were expecting to be deported to another prison in the city.


The experience in all was enriching especially since during my research, I had heard many stories of Palestinians who are deported or those who spend months in this room in the airport. I was never able to imagine this room and the conditions in it.  Now, I know.  I was put in it, not as a researcher but as another person to be deported who had no access to the world.  Egyptian authorities did not respect the fact that I was going to Cairo to attend a meeting approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (as the organisers claimed). They simply considered the fact of me being a researcher who talks about a sensitive issue--the Palestinians in Egypt—is a danger.  Tbe executive report I published and the forthcoming book only mirrored facts on the ground of how Palestinians are treated in Egypt. In my analysis I used the tools of international refugee law and human rights declarations to call for justice in the treatment of Palestinians as humans and as refugees who are waiting for the day of return to Palestine.