Blog post by Jeff Crisp, Research Associate at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, and Elena Habersky, Manager of the ‘Refugee Entitlements in Egypt Project’, Center for Migration and Refugee Studies, American University in Cairo.
For the past three decades, governments in the Global North have expressed growing concern about the situation of asylum seekers whose claims to refugee status have been rejected. In the opinion of such states, unsuccessful refugee claimants have no right to remain in the countries where they have submitted an asylum application, and should leave as soon as they have exhausted any appeals against a negative decision on their case.
But that does not always happen in practice. In some cases, rejected asylum seekers may feel that their application has not been treated fairly, and believe that their lives and liberty would be at risk if they were to return to their homeland. In others, unsuccessful refugee claimants consider that they have devoted so much time, effort and money in their bid to reach and remain in a country of asylum that they are unwilling to abandon that objective. Rather than losing face by going home, they prefer to remain in that country irregularly, even if it means living without any legal status, without access to the formal labour market and without any entitlement to public services or welfare benefits.
An unresolved issue
While the industrialized states have fretted about this issue since the 1980s, they have largely failed to resolve it. Detaining and deporting rejected asylum seekers is an expensive and messy business, attracting unwelcome attention from the media and civil society, especially when the process entails the use of physical force.
It is for that reason that governments in the Global North have preferred to establish ‘assisted voluntary return and reintegration’ programmes (AVRR), whereby rejected asylum seekers and other irregular migrants are provided with a free air ticket, a cash payment and the prospect of some education or training in their country of origin should they agree to go back there.
International organizations such as UNHCR and IOM have been supportive of such programmes, believing that they help to maintain the integrity of the refugee status determination procedure (RSD). Public and political support for the institution of asylum can only be maintained, they argue, if it can be seen that unsuccessful asylum seekers return to their country of origin once that procedure has been terminated.
While the issue of rejected asylum seekers in the Global North has attracted a significant amount of attention, there is a serious dearth of information with respect to the situation of unsuccessful refugee claimants in the growing number of countries in the Global South where asylum applications are examined on an individual basis, whether by the authorities, UNHCR, or a combination of the two. This brief article constitutes an initial attempt to fill that gap, using Egypt as an illustrative case study.
The case of Egypt
Egypt lies at the crossroads of migratory movements from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, currently hosting some 260,000 refugees and asylum seekers from well over 50 countries. While no statistics are available with respect to the number of unsuccessful refugee claimants living in Egypt, the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo has published two studies on the socio-economic and protection challenges confronting such individuals.
One of those people is Yassin, a 39 year old Oromo from Ethiopia, who, with four members of his family, has been living with ‘closed-file status’ since his asylum application was rejected in 2017, two years after his arrival in Cairo and initial RSD interview with UNHCR. The rejection letter Yassin received was in English, a language he can neither read nor write, and he was told through an interpreter that he had 30 days to lodge an appeal against the decision. “As I couldn’t get legal assistance,” he explains, “one of the community members assisted me in writing and submitting my appeal.” Two years after he submitted his appeal, his claim was once again rejected.
According to a former NGO legal caseworker who worked on RSD appeals in Egypt, Ethiopian asylum seekers receive the highest rate of rejection at UNHCR’s Cairo office. She believes there are two particular challenges for Oromo claimants. First, the political context in Ethiopia has been changing very rapidly, and there now appears to be a higher burden of proof for Oromos than other Ethiopians when trying to establish that they would be at risk of persecution if they were to return to their country of origin.
The second challenge derives from the strong support that asylum seekers receive from other members of the extensive Oromo community in Egypt. While positive in many respects, such support has also been manifested in the form of ‘case writers’, who prepare false or embellished asylum claims for other Oromos, and which are subsequently rejected in the RSD procedure.
Yassin refuses to contemplate the notion of returning to Ethiopia. “I can’t go back to my country,” he explains. “It is death that waits for me there.” “I have been receiving death threats from anonymous calls and text messages,” he continues. “The Ethiopian government has abducted and forcibly disappeared my relatives back home under the false allegation that they have a political connection with me. Going back to Ethiopia is just like going to the grave.”
However, living with closed-file status in Cairo means that Yassin and his family are in a constant state of worry about being caught by security officials, “If I go out and get arrested,” he says, “I will be deported back to Ethiopia. My family and I can’t go out and openly work; we are in an open prison.” Appealing to UNHCR for support is not an option. As the organization’s Egypt website bluntly points out, once an asylum seeker’s claim to refugee status has been rejected at the first instance and on appeal, “you will no longer be considered as a person of concern to UNHCR.”
Return, move on or stay?
It is very difficult to ascertain how many unsuccessful asylum seekers such as Yassin are to be found in the countries of the Global South, or to know exactly what happens to them once their claims to refugee status have been definitively rejected. They do not appear in UNHCR’s statistical reports, and, as indicated earlier, they have attracted very little attention from the practitioner, policy and academic communities.
Given our limited knowledge of this group, the best that can be done at this stage is to set out some assertions, suppositions and hypotheses that could be tested by means of further research.
First, it can be said with some confidence that very few rejected asylum seekers in the Global South are deported to their countries of origin. Most developing countries simply do not have the capacity or willingness to undertake such removals, and may not in any case know the whereabouts of people who fall into this category, making it difficult to apprehend and remove them. South Africa is one possible exception to this rule, but the deportation statistics provided by the authorities in that country do not make a distinction between rejected asylum seekers and other irregular migrants, all of whom are referred to as ‘illegal foreigners’.
It is probable that some unsuccessful refugee claimants return voluntarily and independently to their countries of origin, especially if they come from neighbouring or nearby states and have the resources required to make that journey. But no empirical evidence on this matter appears to be available.
Further research is also required on the extent to which rejected asylum seekers in the Global South return to their countries of origin by means of AVRR programmes. According to IOM, in 2019, around 65,000 people in developing countries repatriated in this way, but the organization’s statistics do not specify how many of that number were unsuccessful refugee claimants.
There is evidence to suggest that some of the asylum seekers who fail to obtain refugee status in one country, subsequently move to another state in the same region, in the hope of gaining recognition there. For some, this might be the beginning of a long and fragmented journey to another region or even another continent. It would be of great interest, for example, to know how many of the refugees, asylum seekers and irregular migrants in South Africa have previously and unsuccessfully sought asylum in countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique. The same question could be posed with respect to the citizens of sub-Saharan African countries who have made their way to Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, some of whom will eventually endeavour to cross the Mediterranean and seek asylum in Europe.
In the absence of reliable data, this article hypothesizes that a significant proportion of people who are rejected in the RSD procedure of developing countries either choose or feel that they have little alternative but to remain in the country where their refugee claim has met with a negative decision. Some may try to find ways of submitting further appeals against their rejection, even if they have exhausted the formal procedure, while others will seek to gain some kind of security and legal status by marrying a local person, registering as a migrant worker, or by acquiring (often by means of payment or through patronage networks) a national identity document.
Finally, and perhaps the most important of the questions raised by this initial enquiry, concerns the survival strategies, coping mechanisms and protection challenges of those rejected asylum seekers in the Global South who are unable to find a way of regularizing their status.
To what extent are they able to make a living in the informal sector of the economy? Do they receive any support from NGOs, charities or faith-based entities such as mosques, churches and temples? Can they count on the assistance of other diaspora members, both locally and in the wider world, especially those who have succeeded in gaining asylum or being resettled in one of the world’s more prosperous states?
In what ways, does the irregular status of rejected asylum seekers make them vulnerable to exploitation by employers, landlords and the security services? And finally, should UNHCR’s mandate be extended to this group of people, or is the task of supporting and advising unsuccessful refugee claimants more appropriately left to IOM and the Red Cross movement?
Nourhan Abdel Aziz, ‘Surviving in Cairo as a closed-file refugee: socio-economic and protection challenges’, Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies, American University in Cairo, 2017: http://schools.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/cmrs/Documents/Urban%20Crises_Cairo_Final_Sep24%20.pdf
Jeff Crisp, ‘Refugees are finding their own solutions – but are taking great risks in the process’, Refugee Law Initiative, 2019, https://rli.blogs.sas.ac.uk/2019/06/19/refugees-are-finding-their-own-solutions-but-are-taking-great-risks-in-the-process/
Katarzyna Grabska, ‘Living on the margins: an analysis of the livelihoods strategies of Sudanese refugees with closed files in Egypt’, Centre for Migration and Refugee Studies, American University in Cairo, 2005; http://schools.aucegypt.edu/GAPP/cmrs/reports/Documents/Living_on_Margins_Final_July_2005_000.pdf
Katy Long and Jeff Crisp, ‘In harm’s way: the irregular movement of migrants to Southern Africa from the Horn and Great Lakes regions’, UNHCR, 2011, https://www.unhcr.org/research/working/4d395af89/harms-way-irregular-movement-migrants-southern-africa-horn-great-lakes.html
Scalabrini Centre of Cape Town, ‘Detention and deportation in South Africa’, https://scalabrini.org.za/news/detentiondeportation/
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