Egypt - gatekeeper of Europe

Egypt is considered a key strategic partner of the EU in the field of “migration management”, i.e. to prevent undesired migration to Europe. Within the framework of this cooperation, funds are also being channelled into the reintegration of returning Egyptians - with dubious results.


With a population nearing 100 million - and rising - Egypt is already one of the most populous countries on the African continent. Egyptian society is very young, with one in three people under the age of 16. But the hopes of the younger generation in particular for democratic change, which were elevated by the Arab Spring, have not been fulfilled. Ten years after the broad uprising and fall of Hosni Mubarak, the government in Cairo finds itself regularly subjected to criticism by human rights organisations for its repressive and authoritarian style of rule. Since President Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi took power, opposition members and activists have been put under arrest time and again, and thousands have been imprisoned. Human rights are systematically trampled upon. In addition to political restoration, sluggish economic development is also painting an ever bleaker picture of the future. The plummeting Egyptian pound has massively compounded the economic plight of large parts of the population. It is therefore not surprising that many young Egyptians are hoping for a future outside the country. Many would like nothing better than to migrate to Europe.

More of a dead end than a country of origin

At the same time, there are a large number of stranded refugees and migrants living in Egypt. In 2019, there were said to have been around half a million people, most of whom had come from Syria, Somalia, Sudan and the Palestinian territories. To be sure, Egypt is a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention, its 1967 Protocol, and the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Refugee Convention. But there are caveats and restrictions. For example, it is almost impossible for refugees to obtain a work permit in Egypt. Only those from Sudan, Syria and Yemen have access to the public school system. Furthermore, Egypt offers no form of local integration at the socio-political level. It is a policy of non-integration. Ramona Lenz from medico international details in an interview with Deutsche Welle in what ways the situation for refugees in the country has worsened: “The government does not protect refugees, instead contributing to the climate of fear in which they have to live in Egypt, with arbitrary arrests and deportations.” Faced with insecurity and a lack of prospects, many turn to the UNHCR in the hope of escaping their situation through resettlement and departing for countries that are willing to accept them. Only a few Egyptians and transit migrants from Egypt reach Europe. In 2016, of all the refugees who reached Greece, Italy, or Spain via the Mediterranean Sea, only one in ten reportedly departed from the Egyptian coast. The total number of Egyptians who set out for Europe is estimated at no more than 5,000. The number of applications for asylum by Egyptians in Germany is also low; in recent years it has always been below 2,000, and in 2018 there were only 807. For the German government, the northeast African country is not one of the main countries of origin for people seeking protection in Europe. This has nothing to do with the fact that the people all want to stay there. Rather, policies prevent them from leaving.

Joint “migration management”

Since the beginning of 2000, there have been regular meetings between Brussels and Cairo to discuss issues relating to border security, migration management and the prevention of undocumented migration. As a result of the 2015 “Summer of Migration”, cooperation has become much more intensified under pressure from the EU. To cite three examples: Through the Trust Fund for Africa (EUTF) initiated in 2015, the EU provided Egypt with 60 million euros, most of it for the expansion of border and migration management. Funds are also flowing into training and job creation programmes, social integration measures and awareness campaigns to discourage irregular migration. In 2017, the “Partnership Priority 2017-2020” between the EU and Egypt was adopted, with a “Migration Dialogue” guiding strategic cooperation between the two sides. Then, in 2019, the “Survival Ships” campaign, sponsored by GIZ and personally announced by President Al-Sisi, was launched. It seeks to discourage Egyptian youth willing to emigrate from irregular emigration through awareness campaigns and the creation of local job opportunities.

In some respects, the two sides work closely together by mutual accord, but always in mutual interest. “The government under President Al-Sisi knows the bargaining power that refugees in the country give it vis-à-vis Europe,” says Ramona Lenz. “It knows how to use Europe’s fear of refugees to its advantage. Thus, it presents itself as a reliable partner of Europe in migration policy and ensures that hardly any refugees can leave Egypt for Europe. The EU’s support measures in the so-called fight against the causes of flight help it primarily to cope with its own financial crisis. The price for these power games is paid by the refugees who are now stuck in Egypt.” Against the backdrop of its authoritarian style of government, Egypt is seeking greater international legitimacy. At the same time, the al-Sisi regime repeatedly resists European demands, reminding the EU how dependent it is on Cairo to manage migration. In 2018, for example, Egypt consistently refused the EU's request to set up refugee camps for migrants deported from Europe.

Rising numbers of deportations

The cooperation is not just about Egypt stopping migration to Europe. The country is also supposed to take refugees and migrants from Europe. For many years, Brussels has been pushing for the Egyptian government to draft a law for a national asylum system. Such a law would facilitate EU negotiations on the repatriation and deportation of third-country migrants who have entered Europe through Egypt. In 2019, Cairo announced its intention to establish such an asylum system in cooperation with the UNHCR.

Despite this, the number of deported Egyptians from Germany has steadily increased in recent years. While in 2015 only seven people were deported to Egypt, in 2017 this number had already reached 35 and in 2019 it was 67. Even in the pandemic year 2020, 27 people were forcibly returned to Egypt from Germany. If the EU and Germany had their way, the numbers would be much higher. In fact, in the spring of 2021, the EU Commission presented a list of 13 countries that were only cooperating "inadequately" in taking back their own citizens from the European Union. Egypt is also on this list.

Doorman yes, but also a readmission country?

In addition to forced repatriation, the EU and the German government have in recent years increasingly resorted to forms of “voluntary” departure with financial incentives. To this end, numerous programmes have been launched or expanded - from return programmes such as REAG/GARP to reintegration programs such as StarthilfePlus, Perspektive Heimat/Startfinder or ERRIN to Return Preparation Measures (RkVM): All of these are intended to encourage Egyptians leave Europe “of their own free will”.

Since 2017, the German development aid agency GIZ has been helping to set up centres for the reintegration of returnees in many countries, including Egypt, as “Perspektive Heimat” programme. The German-Egyptian “Centre for Employment, Migration and Reintegration” in Maadi, a stylish and affluent district of Cairo, was inaugurated in November 2020 together with the Egyptian government. Its main task is the re-integration of “voluntary” returnees and deported Egyptians from abroad. In addition, young people are to be trained for the national labour market (and thus prevented from migrating to Europe). At the same time, the centre is to provide information about the possibilities (and impossibilities) of legal immigration to Europe. So far, only a few people have taken advantage of the centre's offers, although many events and counselling services have been suspended due to the Co-vid 19 pandemic. No exact figures on the number of returnees are available, for example.

In any case, not very many people are taking advantage of the programmes and repatriation offers. In 2017, 62 Egyptians returned through the REAG/GARP programme and 46 through the StarthilfePlus programme. Of these 46, it is also known that just 22 have collected or received their second instalment in Egypt. It is also unclear to what extent job creation and reintegration measures at the local level carried out by international organisations such as GIZ really help stakeholders to build up a stable existence. Obviously, they do not want to know exactly. For example, no long-term analyses are being performed and only the first three months after the measure are part of the evaluation. In view of the already low numbers and the uncertain sustainability, the question arises as to what all the fuss is about. It seems obvious that the measures are aimed primarily at the German and European public: What matters is that the impression is created that something is being done.

"Increasing violations of basic human rights in Egypt has not stopped the EU and its member states from engaging in bilateral cooperation, funding border protection, forcibly deporting people and repatriating people there through voluntary return programmes."

Muhammad Al Kashef, human rights lawyer.