By Lena Masri
CAIRO (Reuters) – Syrian refugee Ahmad al-Khatib and his 16-year-old son both work as tuk-tuk drivers in Cairo, but it is not enough to pay the bills.
Tough economic reforms and rising costs have hit refugees and migrants in Egypt particularly hard, aid groups say.
Help from a charity is the only way Khatib can cover the family’s rent. He also borrows cash from friends.
“How am I going to repay them?” he asked.
More than 77 percent of Syrian families in Egypt were in debt in 2017, up from 73 percent the year before, according to unpublished data seen by Reuters from a UNHCR survey of more than 100,000 Syrians.
Nearly 93 percent of families were unable to repay the loans, up from 81 percent in 2016, the year Egypt devalued its currency as part of an IMF loan deal.
Egypt has much smaller refugee populations than Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where most of those displaced by Syria’s war have fled. But refugees and asylum seekers reside in Egyptian communities rather than camps, and those without means are directly exposed to economic hardships.
Nearly 250,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers live in Egypt, more than half of them Syrian.
Khatib, 58, suffers from multiple illnesses, including a prostate infection, but cannot afford all the treatments he needs. He usually eats just one meal a day to cut costs.
Arrivals of refugees and asylum seekers have surged, with about a 25 percent increase registered over the past two years, UNHCR data shows.
Since 2016 Egypt has also prevented large numbers of migrants and refugees from leaving by boat toward Europe, efforts that have been praised by the European Union, but this, combined with the increase in arrivals, have left many stranded in some of Egypt’s poorest neighbourhoods.
The Egypt State Information Service could not immediately be reached for comment, but Egypt has previously said that the country’s treatment of refugees is exemplary because they can access services such as healthcare without discrimination and live freely among the Egyptian people.
Economic reforms have not only made life more difficult for Syrians. The International Organization for Migration says requests for assistance with housing costs, medical expenses and returns started to increase in June and have more than doubled since September. The majority come from Sudanese and Ethiopians.
“We believe it’s a consequence of economic reforms and the cut of gas subsidies, which has led to an increase in basic goods costs,” said Laurent De Boeck, IOM’s head in Egypt.
Austerity measures mean Egyptian landlords are stricter collecting rent, he said. Migrants mainly work in the informal sector and some poor Egyptians now view them as competitors, he added.
When Hala Bekdash fled shelling in her native Syria and brought her children to Egypt in 2012, life in their new country was affordable.
But during the past two years prices have rocketed and the family’s bills have doubled, the 32-year-old said.
Bekdash, who works long hours as a teacher, cannot afford to renew her expired passport, which means she cannot renew her Egyptian residency either, resulting in a fine she does not know how to pay.
But she does not want to return to Syria, where her husband would risk being conscripted.
“The building we lived in and where we had our shop was destroyed,” she said. “We have nothing left in Syria.”
(Reporting by Lena Masri; Editing by Aidan Lewis and Alison Williams)