logo logo logo

Walking ghosts

Children without registration papers –

victims of rape of refugees in Egypt

clock icon 19/02/2024

Reham Ghorayeb

As soon as Kemal (not his real name) hears a police siren, this thin little child trembles, rushes to kick open the front door of his house, and throws himself onto his mother lap, weeping and fearful that the police will take him away from his family. His mother, Alia (not her real name), is a Sudanese refugee in Egypt and is torn apart by pain - both the pain from the rape she suffered 14 years previously, and the sadness she feels for her child, who has no means of proving his identity.

Alia feels constantly that he could be taken away from her and, because she cannot prove she is his mother, she stops him going out into the street.

According to “The Egypt Response Plan for Refugees and Asylum-Seekers from Sub-Saharan Africa, Iraq & Yemen 2020”, produced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cairo together with CARE International – the latest report covering this topic – there were 1,312 registered cases of sexual violence during the first ten months of 2019. And Africans accounted of 90% of the survivors of these assaults.

Of all reported crimes involving sexual violence, rape is the most common. Of the 142 cases of sexual violence - of which 89.4% involved women and girls and 10.6% men and boys during October 2019 - 85 (60.7%) of the total reported incidents were of rape.

This study reveals the failure by both the UNHCR in Egypt and the Ministry of Interior, represented by the police, to provide legal support to victims in establishing that rape had occurred, and in registering the resulting child victims of these incidents.

Repeated studies and enquiries have reported on sexual assault suffered by refugees in Egypt, but there is only sparse media information, with little detail, on the subsequent victims – those born as a result of such assaults.


Cities with the highest number of refugees

Tick to display data

Kafr Elk-Sheikh
Port Said

Alia sought refuge in Egypt with her family in 2005, after leaving Sudan to seek protection for herself and her two children from the war, and to provide them with a secure life. After the crisis in Darfur, she had fled to the city of Nyala where she lived in a tent. But she found the living conditions unbearable and saw women raped in front of her. So she decided to move with her children to Egypt. But Alia had no idea what fate would have in store for her, four years after she sought refuge in Egypt. In 2009, two men she did not know kidnapped her for a year and a half, during which time she was repeatedly raped and, as a result, became pregnant with “Kemal”. She gave birth in Egypt and, as a result, the boy was unable to acquire any identification papers.

South Sudan
Other Nationalities
Cities with most refugees

Gender-based violence

blode drop icon

Gender-based violence is widespread in Egypt, particularly crimes involving sexual violence, like harassment and rape. Such crimes have become normalised in Egyptian social culture, where the victim is normally blamed and stigmatised and society seeks to justify the perpetrator’s act, apart from the legal loopholes that undermine the rights of the victim.

The Violent Gender-Based Crimes Observatory, which is part of the Edraak Foundation for Development & Equality, has recorded 523 officially registered crimes of violence against women, of which 17 involved rape. The real number is probably much higher, because victims – particularly victims of sexual violence - are fearful of reporting it and pursuing the legal route.

Numbers of officially registered cases of crimes against women (2022)
Total number of crime of violence against women
Murders of rape victims

Refugee women suffer alongside Egyptian women, especially given their precarious situation and poor living conditions, which mean they often have to live in dangerous slum areas, or accept work that puts them at greater risk of rape.

When “Alia” showed signs of going into labour, she felt the pain was tearing her apart. Her two kidnappers pushed her into a car and took her to the ‘6th of October Hospital’ in Giza Governorate. But the hospital refused to admit her in the absence of her husband or identity papers, so the two men left her to suffer on a chair outside the hospital and fled. “When my pain reached its peak, I just gave birth on the ground,” says Alia sorrowfully.


For Sound recording translation please Click Here.

Given her psychological trauma, “Alia” remembers little of giving birth, but she remembers hospital staff insisting on knowing who was coming to take her home. After they had tried to contact her husband (who was himself looking for his wife) they issued a notification of the child’s birth in his name, but he later denied being the father.


For Sound recording translation please Click Here.

The husband threatened to kill “Alia” and the boy to avenge his honour, so she was forced to flee with the child. She later approached the UNHCR and met one of the lawyers. And the UNHCR promised to follow up her case.

On 19th October 2021, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the UN Commission on the Rights of the Child issued the first report on babies born to victims of rape: “Armed Conflict: the Second Victim of the Crime.” The report showed that, because the mother has no right to register her child, it is deprived of citizenship and consequently of all its rights.

Because “Alia” was not able to register Kemal, he was deprived of neonatal healthcare and of childhood immunisations, which the state provides equally to both Egyptian and refugee children. Alia could not afford to pay for him to be immunised at a private hospital, so she lived for years in fear that he would contract one of the diseases, that other children are protected against.


“The fact that his skin is a different colour creates problems with the neighbours and at his own house. My youngest son is always telling him ‘You’re white’, ‘You’re an Egyptian peasant.’ Kemal’s wheat-coloured skin means his brothers discriminate against him and he’s an object of curiosity and suspicion outside the house,” says “Alia”. So she is forced to hide her child at home and stop him going out, even if she or his brother is with him, in case a neighbour should report her, or one of the security officials, who proliferate on the streets of Egyptian cities, should suspect her.

“Alia” has, for the last 13 years, paid almost daily visits to the UNHCR office to ask for legal help to register her child, and so safeguard his future by establishing his existence. All her requests have been met, however, with procrastination. “Up until last year I’ve been trying with the Commission to get my child registered, but they either say they don’t have a lawyer now, or that the lawyer on my case has left, and they will look for another one, or they just say, ‘Go home and we’ll be in touch later,’” she says.

On paper, Kemal does not exist as far as the Egyptian state is concerned, and for the UNHCR too. So he has no right to schooling, which forced Alia to enrol him unofficially in a private school and pay all his expenses, which amounted to approximately $350. This sum was beyond her means, since she does either domestic work or organises henna parties for women getting married, earning a daily wage of no more than $10.

Moreover, her son is a “ghost” pupil at the school, and cannot sit class exams with his peers, because his name is not on the official roll.

According to UNHCR conditions, a birth certificate proving the child’s existence and naming his parents is needed for him to obtain a refugee card. Kemal is therefore not eligible for services provided by UNHCR, whether they be paying part of the school fees, providing monthly aid, or even being given clothing. Nor can he take part in most of the activities organized by UNHCR’s support organisations for children, as he has no papers to prove who he is.

  • Valid and legally certified documents of marriage or divorce.
  • Notice of birth from hospital or any health facility.
  • UNHCR registration card or valid passport of father and mother.
  • Death certificate in case of father’s death. In case of home birth, please ask health office to issue birth notice.

A psychologist at an institution partnering with the UNHCR (who asked to remain anonymous) says that she sometimes asks “Kemal’s” mother to bring him along and let him take part in some of their activities out of generosity, so as to ease the psychological burden of him feeling different from all the other children in his community. The same thing is usually done with cases like Kemal’s, though this is against the institution’s internal regulations. And they cannot include him in the main events, which require the identities of the participating children and their families.

Clear but ineffective legal measures

blode drop icon

This delay and procrastination occur, even though Article 6 of Egypt’s Child Law No. 126 of 2008, states that “every child has the right to acquire nationality in accordance with Egyptian nationality law.”

Texts and articles of the Child Law in Egypt and the latest updates and amendments

Article 6
Every child has the right to have a nationality in accordance with the provisions of the law regarding Egyptian nationality.

Furthermore, Article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Egypt signed in 1990, also stipulates the right of the child to be registered at birth, to acquire nationality and - as far as possible - to know its parents. States who are party to the Convention are obligated to ensure application of these rights, in accordance with their national law.

Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989

Article 7
1 - The child shall be registered immediately after birth, and he shall have the right from birth to a name, and to acquire nationality. He shall have, as far as possible, the right to know his two parents and to receive care from them.
2 - States party to the Convention shall ensure the implementation of these rights in accordance with their national law and their obligations under the relevant international instruments, in particular where the child is deemed stateless if this is not done.

A victim of lack of trust

blode drop icon

Kemal is not the only child to be denied official registration in Egypt. Four-month-old “Waad” (not her real name) is another case, who suffers the same problem over “colour” and other issues.

Waad is also a victim of the criminal kidnapping and rape her mother suffered. In 2022, Sudanese refugee “Maryam”, (not her real name), was forced to leave her home on the first day of Eid al-Fitr. Because she works doing henna designs and domestic cleaning, she could not afford to rent a house temporarily, so was forced to sleep in a public garden with her four children.

A woman lured her, claiming to have a house where Maryam could stay in return for doing domestic chores. Maryam trusted the woman as someone like her, who would do her no harm. But there she was kidnapped with her children and subjected to repeated rape. A few days later she was able to escape with her four children, while the fifth was already growing in her womb.

This was not the first time Maryam had been raped. Six years before this incident, when she was newly arrived in Egypt, she was raped by a property agent, when she was looking for somewhere she and her children could shelter. When she went to see a property, he raped her in front of her children. Three months later she realised she was pregnant.


For Sound recording translation please Click Here.

Difficulties at the police station

blode drop icon

The Egyptian police lack gender-sensitive procedures and sympathetic ways of handling crimes of sexual violence nature, and despite there being plenty of images of female police officers patrolling the streets during holidays, there are rarely any female police officers in police stations.

Maryam headed straight to the police department in Dokki, after she saw the perpetrator in the area it covers. She tried to file a police report, but her complaint was met with skepticism. She tried to prove the truth of her claims, but was subjected to harassment by police officers, who refused to draft the police report until they had the full name of the perpetrator.

“I tried to convince them that I knew the café where the perpetrator used to go, but they refuse to help me write a police report,” Maryam says. “The worst thing is that my child’s birth certificate states that he is illegitimate.” Maryam was angry because she has a medical report stating that the child was conceived as a result of rape, not sex outside marriage.


For Sound recording translation please Click Here.


For Sound recording translation please Click Here.

Maryam could not bring herself to go back to the police station to correct what was wrong;y written in the report, and to present medical reports proving the rape. The reason was she was fearful she might again have to face contempt and insults, and accusations of indulging in illicit relationships.


“If you go to the police, they will insult you and say rude things... they’re not polite… not respectful. They use bad words... very bad.”

It was not only the police who abandoned Maryam and accuse her of working in the sex industry. She faced the same accusation from one of the doctors at the El Shatby University Hospital in Alexandria, because the prevailing belief is that refugees make up sexual assault claims to speed up the process of resettling them in European countries.

Maryam says, despairingly, “When I was seven months pregnant, the doctor at the El Shatby General Hospital in Alexandria refused to help me unless my husband was present. I told him my husband was not around, but he accused me of working as a prostitute. I explained what had happened to me, and the pain I was in and that I had medical reports. But he refused to help me.”

The police department again refused to file a report about her case, and asked her to bring a notification from UNHCR, and a lawyer so they could draft a report establishing that the incident had taken place. She had no option but to turn to the UNHCR for legal support. But the UNHCR refused to take responsibility and asked her to go back to the police department. Up to the date this report is published, the UNHCR has done nothing to help Maryam prove she is the mother of her child.

But most refugees do not know

blode drop icon

Ashraf Milad, a lawyer specialising in refugee cases, says: “If the police department refuses to draft a report to confirm what has happened, the lawyer representing the victim has the right to go to the public prosecutor to get them to write to the police department involved and force them to draft a report on the incident.”

For Sound recording translation please Click Here.

Police officers are part of the Egyptian society, and are for the most part influenced by the culture of the society in their handling of victims of sexual assault, treating women’s claims with suspicion or blaming them.

Ashraf says: Sometimes the approach of police stations is to not file reports confirming incidents of rape because they believe most victims are lying”. There are rumours about the existence of directives related to reducing the number of reports of assaults on male and female refugees.

For Sound recording translation please Click Here.

“A report on an incident of rape is not a pre-condition for establishing the resulting birth, because it is extremely difficult to conclusively prove the rape has taken place - even though it could be punishable by death. Sometimes the rape follows a kidnapping in some unfamiliar place, or the victim may know nothing of the perpetrator. In this case, a report should be kept, and that is sufficient to establish officially that the victim is pregnant, and that she is the child’s mother. The birth is then registered in the health office in the normal way.”

Ashraf points out that the role of UNHCR is to refer the case to one of the lawyers in the legal team of the organisations it works with, because the UNHCR is the sole body that can take forward measures affecting the community of refugees.

“Muhannad” was more fortunate than his sister “Waad”. Even though he missed out on neonatal immunisations he was still able to enrol at school and has an official birth certificate confirming his right to life. As for Waad, however, her mother is still trying, through the police and the UNHCR, to register her and establish that she is Waad’s mother.

A birth certificate – whatever the nationality – is the only way to prove that a child exists, and it allows for other official documents to be issued.

A “miracle” suspended

blode drop icon

On paper, seven-month-old Mu’jiza [miracle in Arabic] (not her real name) has two parents. But officially she is not registered as a living person. Although her mother obtained a fake marriage certificate, the little girl is spending her first year without identification papers.

“Etab”, (not her real name) is a refugee from South Sudan. She began her story by telling us that she had tried to take her own life and that of her unborn child, after a Sudanese contractor of domestic workers had kidnapped and raped her over a period of three days. She eventually managed to escape the apartment where she was held with the help of the landlord.

She subsequently showed signs of being pregnant and immediately approached the UNHCR for legal assistance and help in drafting a report. But the UNHCR asked for the full name of the perpetrator, as he went by a nickname. She subsequently began to receive phone calls from him threatening her not to make a report.

Etab, barely 23 years old, could not cope with the responsibility of having another child, while also looking after her blind mother and the two children of her deceased sister. So she tried to abort the pregnancy herself, but was saved at the last moment. This time the UNHCR – through their partner organisation CARE International– placed her in a psychiatric facility to receive treatment up to the time she gave birth.

“It is a miracle, she came despite all that’s going on around her, and despite me trying to abort her and commit suicide, and despite my bad health and instable pregnancy, which meant I could have miscarried… despite my attempts to get rid of her, she clung to me.” Once Etab had got over the shock, she developed maternal feelings towards her daughter.


For Sound recording translation please Click Here.

Even though she knew all about the man who had raped her – as he was well known in the Sudanese community – Etab felt unable to report him, after hearing the experiences of other survivors, and particularly in view of the UNHCR being so slow in offering legal help and protection to these women. She opted instead for a traditional solution, and her mother interceded with the Council of Sultans (a traditional council of the South Sudan community in Egypt) to find a man who would be willing to become the father of the child. She did in fact find a man in her tribe who agreed to be registered as the father of the child.

The volunteer father, however, had accumulated a large debt from his university fees, £700 sterling, which he could not pay. The university therefore refused to give him his official papers so he could renew his passport (the proof of identity under Egyptian law) and register the child. He asked Etab to pay off his debts, but she could not afford to pay the full amount. She approached all the aid agencies, but they did not give her the money she needed. Over time, her situation has become more difficult. She is now considering returning home or traveling to another country. But she cannot travel with a child unless she obtains a birth certificate.

“Etab” is afraid to take her daughter out into the street, as she is haunted by the feeling that people will know that she does not have an official birth certificate for her daughter “Mu’jiza” and that they could separate them. One day she was physically assaulted. A passerby was rude to her and when she rebuked him, he threw fireworks at her, which got inside her clothes and caused superficial burns. “Etab” did not exercise her right to complain to the police, for fear that they would ask her for the child’s papers. She says, angrily: “We could have been killed… the baby was with me. Now I just want to finish with the UNHCR and go back to my country. I will die of hunger there, but at least I will not die here in an accident or lose my daughter.”

The UNHCR has so far published no statistics on the number of confirmed rape crimes it has on its books, or the number of children resulting from rape. Nor has it made any reference to this issue in its reports.

The author of the investigation sent several emails to the UNHCR press office and to CARE International requesting information on the number of complaints registered with them. The UNHCR responded by explaining its position on registering child victims of rape. She also contacted the Ministry of Interior, to clarify how African women victims of rape were treated in police stations. But up to the time this investigation was published, she has received no response.

This investigation is the fruit of the collaboration between Friedrich Naumann Foundation - FNF MENA and ARIJ under the “Innovate to Investigate" incubator. Funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. The BMZ is not responsible for the content of the publication. The contents of this publication are the sole responsibility of its creators, they do not necessarily reflect the views of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.