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CAIRO– Strolling in the 6th of October City to the southwest of the Egyptian capital of Cairo, one might feel like traveling in a Syrian city as it is teemed with Syrian-styled restaurants, shops, and groceries selling shawarma, barbeque chicken, pickles and spices.

These businesses are mostly run by Syrian refugees living in the city, whose number is estimated to be thousands. 

Amaar Abdel Rahman, a 44-year-old owner of a restaurant owner selling Syrian sandwiches, is one of them.

Having fled the war-torn homeland with his family in 2012, he has found safe heaven in Egypt ever since. 

“I suffered at the beginning to find a job until I opened, in partnership with an Egyptian, a restaurant selling Syrian sandwiches,” Rahman said. 

Rahman is very satisfied with his current life in Egypt where his family is living in an apartment rented at the same price offered to Egyptians, while his children get free education in Egyptian governmental schools. 

“I had the chance to travel to a European country illegally, but I feel more comfortable here because there are no language, culture, or religious barriers,” the Syrian refugee told Xinhua.

There are over 9 million refugees and illegal migrants living in Egypt originating from about 130 countries, according to a report of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) published on Aug. 7. 

“The current number of international migrants residing in Egypt is 9,012,582 migrants, which is equivalent to 8.7 percent of the Egyptian population,” the report said.  

Among the total, it’s estimated that there are 4 million Sudanese, 1.5 million Syrians, 1 million Yemenis, and 1 million Libyans.

Combined, they account for about 80 percent of the total population of refugees and illegal migrants currently residing in Egypt.

Naela Gabr, the chairperson of the Cairo-based National Coordinating Committee for Combating and Preventing Illegal Migration and Trafficking in Persons, said that the number of refugees and migrants in Egypt has notably increased due to protracted instability in the neighboring countries. 

“Egypt is an oasis of security and safety in a region experiencing several economic and political problems which have driven many Syrians, Iraqi, Libyan, Yemeni, Sudanese, South Sudanese, Ethiopian and Eritrean individuals to find shelter in the most populous Arab county,” Gabr told Xinhua.

The Egyptian official explained that the legal status of the 9 million individuals accommodated by Egypt is refugees and migrants with no legal properties or residency permits. 

Only 275,000 of them have the “status of refugee” in accordance with the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, she said. 

Egypt has adopted a lenient policy toward the refugees and illegal migrants, without taking negative measures against them or putting them into refugee camps, Gabr said. 

They enjoy equal rights with the Egyptian citizens in terms of education and national health care despite the world economic stagnation that has adversely impacted the Egyptian economy and employment, she noted.

The Egyptian official stressed that there are no major problems that have been caused by the refugees and migrants, adding that the foreign presence even contributes to the richness of the Egyptian economy and culture. 

Gabr denied the western reports that Egypt is a transit country for the migrants, as “transit is not easy now as before because border guard forces have completely controlled the Sinai Peninsula, western borders, and the Mediterranean Sea coast.” 

She referred to the National Strategy on Combating Illegal Migration (2016-2026) and Egypt’s Law On Combating Illegal Migration & Smuggling of Migrants which was issued in 2016 for maximizing penalties against illegal migrants as a tool for preventing migration through the Egyptian territories.

Gabr called for better cooperation with Europe, which she said should abandon its double standards in dealing with illegal migrants. 

“Europe has to work on creating job opportunities and settling the political problems in the African countries that export migrants,” she said. 

“Compared to welcoming the Ukrainians, Europe in defending the human rights has dealt with Afghan, Arab and African people with discrimination,” she added. 

Still, some refugees or illegal migrants living in Egypt try to use the country as a springboard for migrating to Europe. 

A 17-year-old Eritrean girl, who refused to be named as she has no legal residence permit in Egypt, admitted that Egypt for her is only “a transit country for migrating to Europe.”

The girl, working as a secretary at a music academy in the Maadi district in southeastern Cairo, arrived in Egypt with her family four years ago. 

She said that she has been saving money for getting a possible ticket to a secured boat taking her and her family to Europe.

“Egyptians are kind, but Egypt is not a rich country and there is no job opportunity for my father, and we cannot live on aid forever. I have dreams to get a good education and legal life,” she told Xinhua.