To the Editors:

In her article entitled “Lost in Cairo” [NYR, June 13], Ms. Caroline Morehead gives a rather biased perception of some aspects of the refugee situation in Egypt. It has become quite trendy to criticize UNHCR for all shortcomings in refugee protection and assistance policies, but your readers deserve a bit more information to make their own judgment on the situation prevailing in Egypt.

Refugee applicants in Egypt

Ms. Morehead describes the crowds gathering at UNHCR’s reception door in Cairo and reports on Sierra Leone refugee applicants “with no arms or hands” queuing up to register. This description is certainly moving and fits some clichés, but none of the few Sierra Leone refugee applicants (less than fifty per year) in Egypt have been victims of some amputation or mutilation in Sierra Leone. Maybe Ms. Morehead is mixing up the situation with countries in West Africa, but her description does not fit the profile of Sierra Leone refugee applicants approaching UNHCR Cairo. Most of them have left their country at different times for a variety of reasons: insecurity, economic reasons, studying in Egypt, or fear of reprisals for those who have been involved in atrocities in their country of origin.

The vast majority of refugee applicants are not coming from all over Africa, as the article suggests, but mainly from Sudan, Somalia, and Palestine. Not all of them are war survivors, dissidents, or victims of human rights violations. The majority of them (76 percent) are destitute migrants who have been told by unscrupulous individuals and organizations that a “promised land” will be made available to them by UNHCR after a short transit in Egypt. Actually, it was stated in the article that very few Africans will consider learning Arabic because they view it as a “symbol of failure.” Those who have this attitude obviously consider themselves as being in Egypt in transit and do not wish to make the minimum effort to acclimatize to the local environment.

The claim attributed to Ms. Harrell-Bond that UNHCR Cairo “has made some 20,000 persons illegal in Egypt” highlights that this distinguished professor at the American University in Cairo unfortunately does not seem familiar with the Egyptian legislation related to the entry and stay of foreigners in Egypt. UNHCR believes that those who are not ready to point out the fundamental difference between refugees and migrants coming to Egypt are serving neither the cause of refugees nor the cause of migrants.

Legal basis for UNHCR refugee status determination decisions

The legal basis for UNHCR to determine the need for international protection of refugee applicants coming to a UNHCR office is not only the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees as suggested by Ms. Morehead, but several instruments and protection guidelines that constitute UNHCR mandate. The statement that refugee recognition “alone can confer a measure of protection, a little money, and the possibility of eventual resettlement” is a misunderstanding of the UNHCR mandate, refugees’ rights, and UNHCR’s modus operandi. Refugee applicants are also protected by UNHCR as long as their refugee status applications remain under consideration by UNHCR. Assistance is not a right that UNHCR may be able to provide within the limits of the shrinking resources placed at its disposal by the international community for such assistance programs. The “right of all refugees to resettlement” advocated by some NGOs in Egypt has no founding in international refugee law. Resettlement is both a protection tool, a durable solution, and an instrument of international burden-sharing that UNHCR is using for a selected number of refugees per year (approximately 3,000 persons). UNHCR’s use of this instrument depends on the profile of the refugees, resettlement places offered by resettlement partner countries, and UNHCR processing capacity. The standards used by UNHCR staff for reaching a decision is not, as stated by Ms. Morehead, “a degree of persecution extreme enough to make return too dangerous.” Her claim that a few, “eleven young Egyptians” are involved in the refugee status determination procedure at UNHCR Cairo is not accurate.


The claim made by Ms. Morehead that “no one” knows about the number of refugees and refugee applicants in Egypt is unfounded. They were 8,794 non-Palestinian refugees on June 30, 2002, registered by UNHCR and some 70,000 Palestinian refugees registered by the Egyptian authorities. The number of refugee applicants currently stands at 14,500. Using figures like 200,000 or even half a million would require some “sourcing” to be regarded as credible. There are many illegal migrants in Egypt, but their number should not be mixed up with refugee applicants. The description by Ms. Morehead of some 4,000 appeal applications piled up in boxes in UNHCR offices might again be appealing to readers, but does not correspond to the reality.

One should wonder what Ms. Morehead’s objectives are: destroying the patiently-built “protection space” existing in Egypt compared to many countries in the region, creating an alternative to UNHCR’s refugee status determination procedure? The situation being sufficiently complex and challenging, UNHCR will not join the voices of those who want to abolish the distinction between migrants and refugees and who will contribute to fuel xenophobic trends in the problematic. The promotion of the refugee cause and the understanding of the needs and plight of refugees requires a more positive daily engagement and commitment, which cannot afford biased information.

Vincent Cochetel
Assistant Regional Representative
Cairo, Egypt


Caroline Moorehead replies:

In Mr. Cochetel’s letter about the performance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Cairo, he suggests that my report on the current situation facing asylum seekers in Cairo is biased and inaccurate. Far from being war survivors and victims of human rights abuses, 76 percent of them are, he maintains, “destitute migrants” lured to leave their countries by “unscrupulous individuals” offering a “promised land.” I do not actually believe that UNHCR really knows where the refugees and asylum seekers pouring into Egypt are coming from or who they are. Asylum seekers reaching Cairo face a series of hurdles, involving profound uncertainty, confusion, and some two years’ wait, before they can even hope for their first interview. Many are put off from applying at all, preferring to live, and wait, in the slums and shanty towns that encircle the city, so that UNHCR has no record of their existence. For figures, I can only reliably quote my own: of the approximately one hundred asylum seekers from many different parts of Africa whom I personally interviewed during 2000 and 2001, I believe that ninety-three were bona fide refugees, eligible for refugee status under the 1951 Convention. That UNHCR chose to recognize 24 percent is baffling and troubling to all who work in the refugee world.

Mr. Cochetel does not choose to address the question of what happens to the 76 percent his officers reject. Unable to return home for fear of what will happen to them, without passport or papers, they move into limbo. Under Egyptian law, they are forbidden to work. Their children receive no education. They are entitled to no medical care. If they do not chose to “acclimatize” themselves, it is because they are treated with such hostility, and because neither UNHCR nor virtually anyone else does anything to help them do so. Nor are they entitled to any protection under UNHCR, and so become liable to constant harassment and detention by Egyptian police and secret services. Conditions in Egyptian jails are horrendous.

Not that recognized refugees or those awaiting interview enjoy a great deal of the protection for which UNHCR was originally set up, or that their status as asylum seekers and accepted applicants entitles them to. At any one time in Cairo there are asylum seekers in detention, held in police custody and interrogated, often brutally. Their homes are raided and ransacked. Asylum seekers in Cairo are permanently frightened; many prefer to live in semi-hiding.

No one is suggesting that UNHCR should alone bear the burden of the increasing flows of refugees now fleeing their own countries. But until governments draw up humane and realistic international policies, address the violence and brutality that drives people into exile, and allocate sufficient funds to meet needs, situations of chaos and misery such as are seen in Cairo can only continue.

As Mr. Cochetel is so anxious about accuracy, perhaps he might have taken the trouble to spell my name correctly.

This Issue

November 7, 2002