- There are believed to be 400,000 to more than a million children living in Egypt without proper citizen rights, including the right to an education or to work. Many of them are born into families were several generations have been stateless, others are children of a foreign father and an Egyptian mother, thus without citizen rights.
According to a new report on stateless people released this week by the Washington-based group Refugees International (RI), Egypt is the African country with the greatest population of people without citizen rights. The large group of stateless people in Egypt has accumulated during a century of immigration and strict nationality legislation, creating an entire class without basic rights.
The story of many of today's stateless people in Egypt started in the early 20th century. The collapse of the Russian and Ottoman Empires around 1917 led to large-scale displacement, with Egypt being a favoured destination for refugees. Only the number of Armenians residing in Egypt was estimated at about 70,000-75,000 prior to the Egyptian revolution of 1952, according to the RI report.
Subsequently, an agreement between the Egyptian government and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1954, and later ratified in May 1981, assigned the UNHCR the responsibility of caring for stateless populations living in Egypt - individuals of Russian, Armenian, Yugoslav, Albanian, Hungarian, Czech, Bulgarian, Polish, Romanian and Estonian origins.
Officially, only some 130 stateless persons remain of concern to UNHCR. In reality, however, large numbers of descendents from these Eastern European and Middle East immigrants still live in Egypt, the country they were born, without citizen rights. Also the children of later immigrants live in this stateless limbo.
They cannot obtain an Egyptian passport as their father is not Egyptian, according to current legislation. Only males may confer citizenship. This in effect also leaves any child born to an Egyptian mother and a non-Egyptian father stateless.
According to RI, these children "cannot attend public school or state universities, are barred from certain professional schools, and cannot work without meeting foreign residency requirements and obtaining work permits." There are believed to be 400,000 to more than a million such children in the country, RI estimates.
These children and adult descendents of immigrants only know Egypt as their country. They were born there and - due to a lack of citizenship - mostly have been barred from leaving the country. They risk not being let to return to their home if they go abroad. They must pay large annual fees to get a work permit. They pay taxes but are not entitled to social security.
In 2003, President Hosni Mubarak closed the annual ruling party conference with a number of announcements, including a statement that the Interior Ministry would begin processing citizenship applications for children of Egyptian mothers and foreign fathers. It has been predicted that if the President's assurances are implemented, Egyptian women will gain the historic right to pass their nationality on to their children.
Excluded, however, are the many Palestinians residing in Egypt - estimated at 55,000 to 77,000 - based on a 1959 agreement not to give Palestinians citizenship in order to preserve their national identity. Palestinian authorities expect these refugees to return to Palestine once a state is established there.
Also, Palestinian men who have left the country to work abroad face further difficulties because Egypt has closed the office that issues return visas. "They live abroad illegally and cannot return to Egypt, a situation that makes them stateless," according to the RI report.
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