A Hand Up, Not Hand Out, For Refugees In Egypt

04/25/2017 02:45 pm ET Updated May 01, 2017

At a time of continued conflict in Syria and looming famine in East Africa, it’s hard to find any good news about the world’s historic displacement crises. As intractable and unrelenting as this challenge appears, however, I did discover cause for hope during a recent visit to Cairo.

There, I saw successful efforts to improve the self-sufficiency of refugees, especially refugee youth. These efforts were supported by funding from the U.S. Government, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and an American foundation. They are enabled by business calculations and the leadership of the Egyptian private sector, and guided by committed, creative Save the Children staff.

These win-win partnerships involving national governments, the private sector, NGOs, and donors can enable refugees to earn a living and thus improve their lives as they confront a future of prolonged uncertainty. This is a wise investment of taxpayer dollars that Americans can be proud of. It should be scaled up, not cut back, when Congress receives and acts on the Administration’s FY 18 budget proposal in mid-May.

Although less numbing than the figures for Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, the number of registered refugees who have entered Egypt from Syria and Africa (where many are also fleeing violent persecution) in recent years is approximately 200,000. When combined with those who are unregistered, the count rises to more than twice that number. Almost 40 percent of registered refugees are children, and thousands are unaccompanied. Vulnerabilities abound as refugees live in host communities in large urban areas. They face challenges such as economic insecurity, discrimination, threats to their safety, and inadequate education opportunities. Unaccompanied youth I met were living eight or nine to a cramped apartment.

Based on an analysis of refugee needs, Save the Children launched an initiative in 2016, working with partners to improve the economic security of Syrian and African refugees in Egypt. Egyptian employers told us about real labor shortages they faced for some kinds of factory work, and we learned that many refugees were prepared to do that work with some amount of on-the-job training. Save the Children, with donor support, thus identified potential employers and, through our contacts with leaders in the refugee communities, identified potential refugee applicants. To support this match making, we also helped refugees prepare for employment and helped build the capacity of employer Human Resources staff to manage some of the complications arising from employing foreign workers. This program resulted in more than 300 refugees being employed in 2016.

When I visited one garment factory in 6th of October City outside Cairo, where Save the Children had recently begun to work, the chief operating officer told me that roughly 7 percent of his work force were refugee workers. Although there were some challenges in integrating these workers in the work force, the official justified what he described as a “win win” arrangement on straight business terms: the refugees were good workers and had the capacity to master the work, so he was prepared to recruit many more to scale up his factory production. This was not charity.

When my Save the Children colleagues and I met separately with the refugees, who came from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, we heard mainly about typical work issues, such as the cost of transportation in relationship to wage levels. Some issues were unique to refugees – the fact that they had to take time off from work to check in with UNHCR during their three-month probationary period before their annual leave entitlement took effect, and thus lost income – but these were issues where we helped broker a dialogue with the company.

I was very heartened by what I saw in this livelihoods program, which complemented other forms of support we were providing refugees in Egypt, including education, parental support and psychosocial support, also funded by the U.S. Government, UNHCR and some private donors. First, American funding helped refugees―each of whom had their own personal stories of hardship— begin to stand on their own feet in a new country, while they wrestled with their future.

This initiative was scalable and achieving sustainable results. Second, the funding also enabled a partnership among national and international actors to address these challenges together with refugee and host communities. This is an important example of how our foreign assistance programs both speak to our national values and generosity as a nation and achieve smart results.

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