How Palestinians who fled Syria war to Egypt are forced into illiteracy

As Israel floats resettlement of Gazans in Sinai, ARIJ investigation gathers unprecedented data on exclusion of Palestinian children from Egypt schools.

“We’re waiting for residency so our children can live, we’re not living. […] Children not being able to learn, this is not life,” said Sanaa Mohammed (pseudonym) vehemently.

Sanaa and her husband are Palestinian refugees who hold Syrian travel documents. They came to Egypt after the uprising and ensuing war broke out in Syria in 2011.

Sanaa says her daughters Rana, Mai and Dalia (pseudonyms) are being denied a school education in Egypt because they do not have residency permits.

The Egyptian Ministry of Education requires a valid residency permit for foreign or refugee students to enrol in both public and private schools. While all Palestinians in Egypt are used to navigating a burdensome system for the issuance of residency permits, this investigation shows how those who fled Syria are almost systematically denied the same documents, which makes their conditions even more precarious.

Many Palestinian families with Syrian papers resort to alternative, at time partial, solutions, to provide an education to their children. However, none of these solutions will provide the pupils with a recognised school certificate.

Sanaa and her husband resort to educational materials available online to teach the girls lessons in Arabic and English languages. Rana (13) and Mai (12) came to Egypt with their parents in 2013 to escape the war in Syria. Dalia (6) was born in Egypt. Given their age, both Rana and her sister Mai are lagging behind in their school curricula.

Sanaa says her daughters wake up early in the mornings. They watch their friend who lives in the same building when she leaves for school. The girls tell their mother when they hear the door to her apartment close, “Nada has gone to school.” Then, in the afternoon, they observe children from the neighbourhood returning from school from their window.

The girls insisted on getting schoolbags and books, and their parents obliged, even though they don’t attend school.

In one room in the house, Dalia, the youngest daughter, sits down and begins to draw. Her small fingers move across the paper as she sketches a rectangle with a triangle on the side. She chooses four colours – the colours of the Palestinian flag. Sanaa says Dalia asks her about children in Gaza and if they will go back to their schools when the war ends. Her daughter asks: “If I went to Gaza, would they enrol me in school?” explains the mother.

In the context of the ongoing Israeli onslaught on Gaza and despite Israeli pressures, the Egyptian government is said to remain opposed to the resettlement of Palestinian refugees in the Sinai Peninsula for political and security reasons. But some analysts have suggested that the latest generous injection of foreign currency into Egypt’s troubled economy from different international actors could be linked with an attempt to soften Cairo’s opposition to a new influx of Palestinian refugees.

Between 5,000 and 6,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria are estimated to have arrived in Egypt between 2011 and 2013. Their number is said to have declined to around 3,000 after the restrictions imposed by the Egyptian government, including the denial of residency permits, forced them to return to Syria or seek refuge elsewhere.

While obtaining official data and statistics on these refugees seems nearly impossible, with UNRWA lacking such information, the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) network managed to collect data from about a hundred Palestinian families from Syria residing in Egypt. The emerging picture sees most children deprived of education. Some of them never sat in a classroom.

Infobox: Palestinian refugees in Egypt

There are no reliable figures on the number of Palestinian refugees in Egypt, as their registration with UN agencies and the Palestinian embassy in Cairo has been intermittent at best.

Historically, as refugees, they have been suffering from multiple protection gaps.

When The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established in 1949, in the aftermath of the 1948 Nakba, it was given no mandate to operate in Egypt, including in the field of education. The Egyptian government preferred to set up its own body to assist refugees, as it was opposed to creating favourable conditions for them to stay in the country. In their view, this would have pressured the international community to fulfil the Palestinians’ right to return to their occupied homeland.

Egypt is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (also known as the Geneva convention). Consequently, Palestinians would be entitled to assistance from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Especially since article 1D of the convention (also known as “the exclusion clause”) does not apply to them. The article stipulates that refugees who are supported by other UN agencies are not entitled to assistance from UNHCR, but this is not the case of Palestinians in Egypt who, unlike Palestinians in the Levant, have no access to UNRWA services. Nevertheless, the Egyptian government has largely prevented UNHCR from registering Palestinian refugees.

Despite the tight control under which UN agencies have operated in Egypt, there had been times in which Palestinian refugees were treated fairly in the country. Under President Gamal Abdel-Nasser (1956-70), Palestinians were able to access free state education, similarly to Egyptian citizens.

The conditions of Palestinians swiftly deteriorated in 1978, under President Anwar Sadat, following the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David Accords and the assassination of Egyptian Culture Minister Yousuf al-Siba’i by the Palestinian Abu Nidal Organisation in the same year. Palestinians started being burdened with tuition fees in order to access public schools. Under the following presidential mandates (Mubarak, Morsi and El-Sisi), Palestinians were unable to retrieve the rights they enjoyed under Nasser. Dr. Oroub al-Abed, who studied at length Palestinians in Egypt, describes them as “provisional residents”, who have to endure an extremely convoluted, and often expensive, bureaucratic process to obtain residency permits.

In 1981 the Egyptian government also added a series of reservations to some articles of the Geneva convention, including but not limited to the refugees’ access to primary education. They argued that they were in contradiction with Egyptian laws. Regardless of its reservations, Egypt is also a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990), which mandates member states to provide free access to primary education (art.28.1.a) and free or subsidised access to secondary education (art.28.1.b).

Main source: ‘Palestinians in Egypt. Assessing the impact of Egyptian state policies and regulations on Palestinian refugees’ (2016), Palestinian Return Centre.

Cycle of displacement

Rana and her sisters are from the fourth generation of refugees from the 1948 Palestinian Nakba.

Their great-grandfather Mohammad Abdullah (pseudonym) was displaced with his family from their village of Dafna in the Safad Subdistrict of Palestine. They left their home, citrus orchards, and olive trees behind. Armed Zionist groups took over the village and turned it into a settlement in 1939.

Mohammad’s family sought refuge in Syria after the Nakba in 1948, later settling in the Yarmouk refugee camp, located in the outskirts of Damascus, where his children and grandchildren received their school education. One of them was his grandson Majed (pseudonym).

The number of Palestinians who fled to Syria after the Nakba is estimated at 85,000, around 40 percent of whom came from Safad and its subdistrict. Most Palestinian refugees in Syria enjoy many civil rights guaranteed to Syrian citizens, such as the right to own immovable property, according to specific regulations, and the right to own movable property. They also have the right to move within Syrian territory and reside anywhere in it, as well as the right to run for membership or leadership of unions there. Palestinians in Syria also have the right to litigate and to appoint lawyers.

An UNRWA report published in 2009, a few years before the war broke out in Syria, indicated that Palestinian refugees there were outperforming their peers in state schools by a wide margin, according to tests which monitored and assessed student achievement in core subjects.

“They consider us Syrians,” said Majed, “we came from Syria and were born in Syria. Syrians had everything going smoothly, we had no reason to be envious, we were just like them.”

He continued: “If you look at my passport, it says I was born in Damascus, and my wife was born in Damascus, but I left Syria because of the war.”

Majed grew up in the Yarmouk camp, married there and became the father of two girls. He didn’t know that he and his family would be displaced again, to another Arab-majority country. In Egypt, however, unlike in Syria, education wouldn’t be an option for his daughters.

Majed’s family arrived in Cairo airport in 2013, hoping to start a new life.

Later, Majed applied for residency with the interior ministry’s General Administration of Passports, Emigration and Nationality. After several reviews spanning six months, a passport office in Cairo informed him that he “had no right to obtain residency”.

Majed doesn’t know why he and his family are denied residency rights in Egypt despite having entered the country lawfully.

"While all Palestinians in Egypt are used to navigating a burdensome system for the issuance of residency permits, this investigation shows how those who fled Syria are almost systematically denied the same documents, which makes their conditions even more precarious." 

Filling the gaps of official data

UNRWA provides education to Palestinian refugees in the Levant, and specifically in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. However, the agency provides no services in Egypt, with its presence there limited to a representative office that serves the purpose of liaising with Egyptian authorities and other UN agencies.

Our investigative team sought repeatedly to obtain updated data from UNRWA on the number of Palestinian refugees from Syria living in Egypt. The UN agency’s Cairo office responded with two apparently conflicting emails.

In the first one, dated March 31, it stated that it held no statistics on the number of Palestinian refugees from Syria and on how many of these were enrolled at Egyptian schools, and redirected us towards the Palestinian embassy in Cairo.

In the second response, dated May 28, UNRWA explained that it “does not have a mandate or the capacity to collect nationwide census data on the number of PRS [Palestinian Refugees from Syria] finding themselves or otherwise residing in Egypt – this is equally true in the fields in which UNRWA operates [i.e. in the Levant] – but regularly updates the number of Palestine refugees who opt to register themselves with the Agency in Egypt”.

In addition to UNRWA, the investigation team contacted the Palestinian embassy in Cairo, research centres and organisations that specialise in Palestinian issues. However, none of these institutions seem to have up-to-date information on the number of PRS in Egypt.

"While obtaining official data and statistics on these refugees seems nearly impossible, with UNRWA lacking such information, the ARIJ network managed to collect data from about a hundred Palestinian families from Syria residing in Egypt. The emerging picture sees most children deprived of education. Some of them never sat in a classroom." 

ARIJ has therefore proceeded to circulate questionnaires and document the cases of 97 PRS families who live in Egypt. All these families have sons and/or daughters of school age.

According to the survey sample, the vast majority of these families entered Egyptian territory through official border crossings (airports, seaports, or land crossings). Most of the participants live in Cairo.

The data analysis revealed that approximately one third (29%) of the children in these families had not received any form of education. Among them, some had reached 13 years old without ever having attended a school, educational centre, tutor group, or other.

The data also revealed that around 47% of the children in these families were studying outside the formal education system and were relying on “Syrian centres” (educational centres established for Syrians at the beginning of the war), tutoring groups outside of school, or other initiatives.

State education in Egypt is available to Syrian, Yemeni, Sudanese, and South Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers, just as it is available to Egyptians. To access schools, they need to have valid residency permits granted by the General Administration of Passports, Immigration and Nationality.

Egypt signed the Casablanca Protocol in 1965 which concerned Palestinian refugees and stipulated that Palestinians holding travel documents who resided in Arab League countries were entitled to the same treatment as citizens of those countries regarding visa and residency applications. However, Palestinians have never enjoyed all the protection which was supposed to be guaranteed by the Protocol.

Syrian refugees can enrol their children in private formal schools in Egypt, but this is not an option for Palestinians with Syrian travel documents. Even if they can afford to enrol their children in these schools, PRS cannot obtain a school certificate without a valid residency permit.

Regarding the “Syrian centres”, Mostafa Salah (pseudonym), who worked as a teacher at a Syrian centre in 6th of October City in Cairo, explained that they are very similar to normal schools, and are organised according to the usual academic system of terms and classes. Most of them are not licensed by the Egyptian ministry of education and are therefore not authorised to issue recognised school certificates.

The annual tuition fees for a student at a Syrian centre range between 9,000 and 15,000 Egyptian Pound (EGP) ($191-318) for pre-school, primary and intermediary stages. For secondary school students, fees range between 11,000 and 20,000 EGP ($234-425).

These are large sums difficult for Palestinians to afford, because they work illegally in Egypt due to their lack of residency permits, which means that they are paid less than their Syrian or Egyptian counterparts. The average monthly income for Egyptian families in urban areas was approximately 6,600 EGP (around $140) in 2020, according to the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics, whereas CEOWORLD magazine indicates that the gross average monthly salary in Egypt is $222 (10,500 EGP).

Most recently, in January 2024, 18 states, mostly from the EU, halted funding to UNRWA over Israeli allegations that some of its employees had been implicated in the Hamas October 7 attack. This further jeopardised UNRWA’s ability to continue supporting Palestinian refugees in its areas of operation. Although very limited in its scope, the UN agency also provides basic services to PRS in Egypt. Its Cairo office told our investigative team that “PRS […] who make their presence in Egypt known to UNRWA by registering themselves may be eligible to receive both subsidized, though limited, healthcare [in coordination with UNHCR (the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees) and the Egyptian Red Crescent] as well as limited cash assistance.”

Deprived of “life”

Majed said he had left Syria fleeing the war and looking for a better life for him and his family, but “the new life has turned out harder; wherever we go we find the life very, very hard”. He added that “the residency permit is life.”

Majed had difficulties renting a place to live in without having a residency permit. He had to rely on a real estate broker to resolve this dilemma. Majed works eight hours a day in a sewing workshop owned by a Syrian. He is trying to find another job to meet his family’s needs, but fears legal repercussions because of his condition as undocumented immigrant.

Majed was unable to obtain a birth certificate for his youngest daughter. He says, “I don’t dare to approach any government offices, and if her mother hadn’t obtained it, I would have never considered getting it.”

His precarious legal status also prevented him from filing a complaint against a neighbour who had assaulted him, fearing that he would have been transformed from the victim into the arrested perpetrator.

"The girls insisted on getting schoolbags and books, and their parents obliged, even though they don’t attend school." 

Threatened with deportation

“Don’t come back again. If you do, you will be deported.” This is what Ahmed Saeed (pseudonym), a PRS in Egypt, was told when he visited one of the passport centres to renew his residency permit. Ahmad said that an Egyptian officer at the centre intended to report him for deportation along with his family but agreed not to on the condition that Ahmed wouldn’t come back again.

Ahmed lives in Cairo with his family and has two daughters and three sons. His daughter Manar (pseudonym) stopped attending classes at a private institute due to its administration’s refusal to let her proceed into Year Two (primary school), because her father was unable to renew the temporary residency permit granted to the family.

Ahmed’s wife is teaching Manar how to read and write. Ahmed said the Syrian families who had entered Egypt with them have managed to obtain residency permits and regularise their status.

Asaad Majdalani, who identified himself as “the head” of the PRS community in Egypt, confirmed that the passport administration had started stamping the word “deportation” on the passports of Syria’s Palestinians without then proceeding with the actual deportation process.

If Egypt were to deport Palestinians to Syria, it might violate international law and its principle of non-refoulement, which “prohibits States from returning refugees […] to countries or territories in which their lives or freedom may be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”.

Egyptian law stipulates that anyone who refuses to comply with a deportation order is punishable with imprisonment and forced labour, for a period between three months and two years. This in addition to being subjected to fines ranging between 50 and 450 EGP ($1-10). If the individual returns to the country, they can be imprisoned for six months. This is according to Law No. 89 of 1960, which regulates the entry and exit of foreigners.

"Sanaa says Dalia asks her about children in Gaza and if they will go back to their schools when the war ends. Her daughter asks: 'If I went to Gaza, would they enrol me in school?' explains the mother." 

Who is responsible?

Speaking with the author of this investigation, Asaad Majdalani lamented how Palestinians from Syria reportedly receive no support from the Palestinian embassy in Cairo.

The “head” of the PRS community in Egypt said he has always received the same response from the Palestinian National Authority’s diplomatic representation: that they are “Syrians”, hence the Syrian embassy should handle their case. Palestinian refugees can renew their Syrian travel documents and obtain civil or family records from the Syrian embassy. But Majdalani emphasised: “We’re not Syrians, I am Palestinian, and [even] if I lived in Syria, my origins are Palestinian, I’m from Haifa.”

He added: “The Palestinian embassy hasn’t offered us anything, I met with the ambassador Diab al-Louh ten times, and we haven’t benefitted from him in any way […]. The embassy has completely abandoned us.”

Egyptian researcher in immigration and asylum issues, Nour Khalil, told the author of this investigation that the Palestinian embassy was largely responsible for the situation of PRS, as it would have the power to resolve the issue of residency permits by liaising with the Egyptian government.

Our investigative team contacted the Palestinian embassy for a comment on these accusations, but no response has been received in time for publication.

According to Khalil, responsibility also lies with the Egyptian government and parliament, UNRWA and UNHCR – which, unlike UNRWA, has an operational presence in Egypt. The immigration expert told us that Egyptian institutions are responsible for addressing legislative and legal shortcomings, since these Palestinians from Syria live in Egypt.

Our investigative team sought comment from both the Egyptian interior ministry (General Administration of Immigration, Passports and Nationality) and the ministry of education. No response has been received in time for publication.

With regards to UNRWA, its Cairo office told us that “access to the national school system for Palestine refugees is determined by the regulations of state authorities in the country in which refugees live. In the case of Palestine Refugees, those with valid residency permits are eligible to enroll in schools in Egypt”.

The UN agency added that “within the scope of UNRWA’s mandate, the Agency continues to actively seek solutions to the challenges PRS face. These challenges center around limited access to basic services, assistance and other benefits, and are especially acute for individuals who lack legal status and/or are unable to regularize their legal status in Egypt.”

With regards to UNHCR, a spokesperson emphasised via email that “the protection of refugees is first and foremost a state responsibility. UNHCR cannot register or support any population of refugees in any country without the consent of or an agreement with the host government. In Egypt, UNHCR’s mandate vis-à-vis Palestinians is not recognized by the Government, including Palestinian refugees from Syria.” The spokesperson added that “UNHCR is in continuous discussions with the Government of Egypt with regard to UNHCR’s engagement vis-à-vis Palestinian refugees in the country.”

Immigration researcher Nour Khalil explained that the problem of residency permits not being granted began in 2015 but there has been no official decision halting their issuance. Instead, the Egyptian general administration of passports informed Syria’s Palestinians verbally. He pointed out that every decision issued by an administrative body should be justified and follow official procedures, so that those affected can appeal against it.

The fact that PRS are being forced into illiteracy doesn’t appear to stem from clear instructions. As a matter of fact, the author of this investigation came across a limited number of students who had obtained residency papers.

Ahmed Khaldoun (pseudonym) studies in the third year of secondary education at a private school in the Gesr El Suez area in Cairo. In previous years, Ahmed obtained a residency permit which allowed him to enrol in a private school. However, the delay in issuing the residency permit this year could prevent him from sitting his exams, even though his family already paid the tuition fees for the academic year.

Najwa Qasem (pseudonym), Ahmed’s mother, explained that her son had obtained a study permit every year since they arrived in Egypt 13 years ago, but the issuance of the residency permit had been delayed this year.

Najwa said: “We haven’t receive it although we applied last October. Every time we ask, they say: ‘a little longer’, which means there’s something delaying it.” She continued: “I’m Syrian, so if I apply for residency for myself, it comes in a week. But for my children [i.e. as carer of my children who are in school age] it usually takes two or three months longer because my husband is Palestinian-Syrian, which involves security questions and other procedures.”

Deprivation extends beyond the denial of formal education. Absence of residency papers results in refugees being denied several rights, including the right to own a mobile phone SIM card, the right to work, access medical services, and the ability to benefit from assistance or services provided by civil and developmental organisations. PRS are also denied access to justice in all its forms, as lacking residency papers prevents individuals from filing complaints, explained Nour Khalil, the immigration expert.

He clarified: “If I was deprived of the right to register, and of the right to obtain an official residency permit, I would also be denied the other rights, and legal protection would be withdrawn from me; if I was murdered today there would be no punishment.”

Khalil added that “the police departments deal with the refugees on the basis of ‘you should thank God you’re alive’.” They are denied the right to appeal against their deportation, as they are unable to appoint a lawyer to raise a legal claim. All of this because they don’t hold a valid residency permit.

Ahmed Saeed (pseudonym) told us that his daughter had been subjected to a kidnapping attempt. He did not file a complaint as he doesn’t hold valid papers to stay in Egypt.

“Even if I wanted to return, I couldn’t”

The current academic year is on the verge of ending. Rana and her two sisters won’t be able to enrol at the nearby school for the coming year and will remain stuck with their family in Egypt; they are unable to leave the country because of accrued fines for late renewal of residency permits, in addition to the fees for renewing Syrian travel documents.

While the Egyptian passports administration won’t grant Majed and his family members residency permits, they are paradoxically required to pay a “lateness fine” should they decided to leave the country. Given the number of years Majed and his wife have spent in Egypt, the author of this investigation calculated that their fine could reach 43,000 EGP ($906).

The annual fine for late residency renewals amounts to 1,000 EGP ($21) for the first three months, with an additional 500 EGP ($11) for every additional three months after that.

Majed, who is now certain that leaving Egypt is not an option for him, says: “Even If I wanted to go back, I couldn’t. […] And where would I go? No one welcomes us because we’re Palestinians.”

He continued: “I swear, I can’t sleep from thinking so much… Sometimes I wonder where I’m going, and how did I end up here… Sometimes I think it would be better if I just died.”

Sanaa, the mother of Rana, cannot even think of returning to Syria. “Where would I return? My family is there, yes, but there is no house, no job. Those who are still in Syria are leaving,” she said. The Yarmouk camp, from which many Palestinians in Egypt hail from, was largely destroyed during the Syria war.

Sanaa is worried about the future of her daughters. “Even if they gave us the residency permit and we could apply [to enrol them] at [an official] school, and despite them studying [at home] in Year Five and Six, they would send them back to Year One. […] Six years of their lives would be lost,” she said crying.

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