Inside Cairo’s ‘Garbage City’: Slums, waste management and contested spaces [photo-essay]

It was a hot summer day reaching nearly 50 degrees Celsius when I visited Mokattam village (informally known as “Garbage City”) in Cairo’s Manshiyat Naser district (see Fig.1). As I approached the area, the steaming scent of trash filled my nose as I made repeated and largely unsuccessful attempts to swat the flies hovering around my head.

Fig.1: Cairo’s Manshiyat Naser district (Mokattam village ‘Garbage City’ in the black rectangle). Base map by Nicolas Parent, 2015.

Mokattam has over 50,000 inhabitants, most of them Coptic Christians that settled in Cairo about 70 years ago after leaving their agricultural roots in Southern Egypt [1]. They work informally, as Cairo’s most important labor force of garbage collectors, sorters and recyclers.

An ostracized people from Cairo’s broader population, they are known as the Zabaleen, literally meaning “garbage people” in Arabic.

Cairo - Garbage City 5

What is most impressive, however, is the efficiency at which they do their work: “(…) the Zabaleen, the traditional waste collectors of Cairo, have created what is arguably one of the world’s most efficient resource-recovery and waste-recycling systems” [2]. Collecting from the heart of the city center to the greater metropolitan limits of Cairo, 4,500 tons (although other estimates go up to 9,000 tons [3]) of waste is brought to and processed in Mokattam village every single day, of which 80% of it is recycled and turned into sellable raw material [4]. This is an astonishing figure when considering Europe’s 2014 recycling rates, where Germany takes the lead at 65% and the overall EU average tops out at a slim 42% (see Fig.2).

Fig. 2: Recycling Rates in Europe. Source: Daily Mail (2014), UK; available online at:

Aside from the efficiency factor, a vast and complex array challenges exist for the Zabaleen. The 7 areas of residence (Ein El Sira; Moatamadia; El Baragil; Tora; Ezbet El Nakhl; Helwan; and Muqattam) have now become contested spaces, where Cairo’s population growth and urbanization have led to a political push to displace the Zabaleen in order to gentrify the slum areas that have gained substantial real estate value over the last decades. Fahmi and Sutton (2006) assert that the city government made substantial financial contributions to livelihood development projects in the Zabaleen communities over the years, but in reference to Muqattam, this may have been part of a “(…) wider but hidden agenda involving urban redevelopment of this part of the city” [5]. This has led to various resettlement schemes that have brought some Zabaleen communities to the outskirts of Cairo [6], placing them further away from the sources of trash that supply their daily bread and butter.

Cairo - Garbage City 11

However, the Zabaleen are a strong and hard working community that has already surmounted previous challenges. In 2003, the then-President Hosni Mubarak made an attempt to liberalize the waste management sector by contracting out the work to multinational corporations. As this new approach required the residents of Cairo to change their sorting and disposal habits, its efficiency was compromised and became a failed project. However, it raised a multitude of questions and debates concerning the Zabaleen’ legal rights to Cairo’s trash industry. Since then, organizations such as Association for the Protection of the Environment (APE) and the Spirit of Youth Foundation have made strides towards establishing formal Zabaleen trash sorting and recycling enterprises [7].


Cairo - Garbage City 9

Cairo - Garbage City 6

As I strolled through the tight alleyways with towering windowless brick buildings, children played and worked amidst the rubbish. Although some would be appalled by the filth of this precarious environment, it was an organized place where laughter and the values of hard work and solidarity still thrived. No matter the issues of legal tenure or the informal nature of their work, waste management is a critical issue for all large metropolitan areas. And as Cairo grows as Africa’s second largest capital, it is difficult to conceptualize a Cairo without the Zabaleen.

To supplement the photos above, I suggest watching Garbage Dreams (2009), a documentary following the lives of three Egyptian boys that have grown up in Mokattam village.



[1] Mills, D. (2013) ‘Cairo’s “Garbage City” is a slum of 50,000 people, mostly Coptic Christians whose families came to the city from farms in the south seventy years ago’, First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, (235).

[2] Fahmi, W. S. (2005) ‘The impact of privatization of solid waste management on Zabaleen garbage collectors in Cairo’, Environment & Urbanization, 17 (2): 155.

[3] Guénard, M. (2013) ‘Cairo puts its faith in ragpickers to manage the city’s waste problem’, The Guardian, (London), 19 November; available online at:

[4] Wood, E. D. (2011) ‘Garbage City: For Cairo’s Coptic Christians, the future may rise from what others discard’, The Virginia Quarterly Review, 87 (2): 7.

[5] Fahmi, W. S. and Sutton, K. (2006) ‘Cairo’s Zabaleen garbage recyclers: Multi-national’ takeover and state relocation plans’, Habitat International, 30 (4): 809-837.

[6] Sutton, K. and Fahmi, W. (2010) ‘Cairo’s contested garbage: Sustainable solid waste management and the Zabaleen’s right to the city’, Sustainability, 2 (6): 1765-1783.

[7] University of Pennsylvania, Wharton (2010) ‘Waste not: Egypt’s “Garbage People” seek formal recognition’, Knowledge @ Wharton, 10 August; available online at:

A glimpse of the “Borders and Refugees” International Cartoon Exhibition, Izmir [cartoons]

At the time of this publication, nearly 70,000 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan have settled in the ancient city of Smyrna, now known as Izmir [1]. This summer, however, the city’s Basmane neighbourhood saw a mass inflow of transient refugees – a stopover for those pursuing the treacherous sea journey to various Greek islands in the hopes for a better life in the EU. Izmir was one of many cities and villages that hosted the nomad-like migrants, and is still doing so, but the numbers are dwindling as the weather becomes increasingly brisk and the sea angrier. Some locals offer a helping hand: food, clothes and supplies – organisations such as Halkların Köprüsü have done substantial work in this regard. Others remind the passerby of passages from The Stranger, the commoner and the hostile view of the Arab. Perhaps this fuels the transit towards Europe, of which for most of the summer comprised of 100 boats leaving the “(…) Turkish shoreline every night, carrying up to 5,000 refugees” [2]. Risks were high, and as the media frenzy exploded with reports of drownings, smuggling and death, so were the costs.

Last night’s opening of the “Borders and Refugees” International Cartoon Exhibition was one of celebration and distress, of humour and misery. Hosted by the İzmir Karikatür Müzesi (Izmir Caricature Museum), in association with Multeci-Der (Association for Solidarity with Refugees), Konak Belediyesi and Don Qichotte e-humour magazine, the exhibition assembled heart-wrenching pieces from dozens of artists around the world. Uncommon to regular interactions with cartoons of which typically sit neatly within blocs of news text, having them as the centre-piece provided an intimate opportunity to speculate on symbolism and find meaning between the lines of fine pen strokes. For those living abroad, below is a glimpse of the exhibition. For those living in Izmir, the exhibition will be on until November 27th and is well worth your time.















[1] Personal communication, Multeci-Der, August 2015.

[2] Kingsley, P. (2015) ‘Lifejackets going cheap: People smugglers of Izmir, Turkey, predict drop in business’, The Guardian, 24 September; available online at:

Catalonian regional parliamentary election 2015 [infographic]


Last Sunday, the Spanish autonomous community of Catalonia had its regional parliamentary elections. Following rejections from Madrid to allow for an independence referendum in Catalonia, regional President Artur Mas made this a key electoral theme. His party, Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC), teamed up with Republican Left of Catalonia (ER) to form the Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes) independence coalition, hoping to gain more votes on the independence issue [1].

Having the opportunity to see the fervor in Barcelona first hand, the streets were bursting with rallies, held together by an endless horizon of Catalonian flag. The fiery spirit was further intensified by the hustle and bustle of La Mercè, an annual festival held in Catalonia’s capital city. The human towers, the fireworks, the street performances and whispers (sometimes in ear-piercing form) on the upcoming election meshed harmoniously in a potpourri of excitement.

The votes are now in, and Junts pel Sí has won 62 of 135 seats, meaning that they will need to create a coalition with another party to receive majority on the march toward independence [2]. The Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) party is most likely to join this coalition, although it previously stated that it would not do so unless Junts pel Sí received at least 50% of the vote and has little in common with CDC and ER parties [3]. With a majority, Artur Mas will push for a binding referendum and aims for independence in 2017 [4], although pro-unity Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy Brey has claimed that, constitutionally, a referendum can only be authorized by the central government and that it will not do so [5].

The above infographic provides additional statistics, as well as “issues at hand” in the separatism debate. Data for the infographic was collected through content analysis of articles published online by The Guardian, Associated Press and The Local ES, from September 24-29.



[1] The Local ES (2015). “Q&A: Everything you need to know about the Catalan elections”. The Local ES, 25 September; available online at:

[2] Minder, R. (2015). “Catalan separatists win narrow majority in regional elections”. New York Times, 27 September; available online at:

[3] Clendenning, A. and Wilson, J. (2015). “Spain: A look at Catalonia’s secession drive, Sunday’s vote”. The Denver Post, 26 September; available online at:

[4] Dawber, A. (2015). “Catalan independence vote may push Spain into crisis”. Independent, 26 September; available online at:

[5] Kassam, A. (2015). “Catalan separatists win election and claim it as yes vote for breakaway”. The Guardian, 28 September; available online at:

Standby Task Force (SBTF), digital humanitarianism and the Syrian refugee crisis: Building the information, services and aid database


Public announcement and press conference on refugees in Turkey, [Basmane, Izmir, Turkey] (12.09.2015). Photo: Nicolas Parent.
Public announcement and press conference on refugees in Turkey, [Basmane, Izmir, Turkey] (12.09.2015). Photo: Nicolas Parent.

The problem

In recent weeks, we have seen a media frenzy surrounding the mass inflow of Syrian refugees into Europe. Tensions have been high amongst European leaders, all having their own strategic plan, vision and position on the issue. Germany, the leading country in refugee and asylum claim acceptance, alongside European commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, has asked EU leaders to agree upon a mandatory refugee quota system. Yet, “Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, and other eastern European leaders insist that they will not accept (…)” (Harding, 2015) this proposition.

According to Martinez (2015), these are the current figures for European asylum claims:

  • Germany: 98,700
  • Sweden: 64,700
  • France: 6,700
  • United Kingdom: 7,000
  • Denmark: 11,300
  • Hungary 18,800
Crisis and refugee migration patterns, September 2015. Nicolas Parent, 2015.
Crisis and refugee migration patterns, September 2015. Nicolas Parent, 2015.

Where the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan show no signs of winding down, refugees from these countries have led to “(…) the biggest wave of refugees in Europe since World War II” (Collard, 2015). However, entry to European countries has become increasingly difficult in the last few days. Most prominent is Hungary’s construction of a 13 ft. high fence along its border with Serbia (Collard, 2015) and Germany’s recent closure of its border with Austria to all not holding a EU passport or visa (Harding, 2015). It is safe to say that the so-called ‘Balkan Corridor’ is shutting down, leaving refugees in transit limbo with little knowledge of where to find aid, services, information and support.

The solution

Internews, an “(…) international organization whose mission is to empower local media worldwide to give people the news and information they need, the ability to connect and the means to make their voices heard” (Internews, 2015), is working on building a database of services and information throughout the Turkey-Balkans-Germany corridor. It’s objective is to collate data about which and where services are available, along with filling the informational gaps hat are negatively impacting refugees along this route.

Internews has recently reached out to Standby Task Force (SBTF), an organisation of some 1600 digital humanitarians, seeking help to scour the Internet to find answers to the following questions:


  • Who is providing services to refugees along this route?
  • What services are they providing?
  • Where are these services being provided?


  • What information are refugees getting along the route?
  • Where are refugees getting information from?
  • What topics is the information covering?

If you have any answers to the above questions (or have time to do some research via news reports), please enter the data in this table, or send to Information will be entered within the SBTF network. Data must be entered by September 23rd, 2015.

Standby Task Force and digital humanitarianism

For those living far from crisis and disasters, it seems almost impossible to provide help effectively. Yet, in this age of globalised technology and communication, this fable has been dispelled and digital humanitarianism is at our doorstep. Standby Task Force is there to help.

The mission of Standby Task Force is as follows:

“(…) to provide volunteer online digital responses to humanitarian crises, local emergencies, and issues of local or global concern by:

  • Deploying a flexible, trained and prepared network of digital volunteers to assist crisis-affected communities through cooperation with local and international responders, including real-time CrisisMapping support.
  • Maintaining awareness of developing crises, connections with responder organisations and potential deployment partners.
  • Testing and refining crisis data processes and technologies.
  • Supporting and advising local, autonomous crisis mapping groups that may or may not be affiliated with the SBTF.” (Stanby Task Force, undated)

Standby Task Force is one of the few networks for crisis mapping, and has participated in dozens of deployments over the years, including during Lybia’s political crisis (2011), the Colombia floods (2012), Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines (2013), the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (2014) and during the Nepal earthquake this year.

Want to join but you aren’t a technology wizard or geo-master? Not a problem. Standby Task Force is unique in its simple interface and well-designed training for newcomers. Find out more or sign up here.

Also, if interested in digital humanitarianism, Patrick Meier’s book Digital Humanitarians: How Bid Data is Changing The Face of Humanitarian Response (2015) is comprehensive. Alternatively, visit his blog.


Collard, R. (2015) ‘Large numbers pour into Hungary daily in the hopes of being allowed to continue their journey north before travel restrictions tighten’, Time, (New York), September 6th; available online at:

Harding, L. (2015) ‘Refugee crisis: EU in crunch talks as queues form at German border’, The Guardian, (London), September 14; available online at:

Internews (2015) ‘What we do’; available online at:

Martinez, M. (2015) ‘Syrian refugees: which countries welcome them, which ones don’t’, CNN, (London), September 10; available online at:

Meier, P. (2015) Digital Humanitarians: How Bid Data is Changing The Face of Humanitarian Response, UK: Taylor and Francis Press.

Stanby Task Force (2015) ‘Our vision’; available online at:

The Aegean transit to Europe: Refugees in Turkey seeking refuge elsewhere [local insight + map]

Whilst the Aegean Sea is basking in the summer sun, a shadow looms over its waters as migrants brave the journey from Turkey to Greece. Travelling during the cover of night, refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran risk life and limb to reach what they believe is the safe haven of Europe.

This article explores the current trend in refugees leaving Turkey via the Aegean Sea, seeking refuge in Greece and other EU countries. Data used within this piece is based on previous research conducted by the author, a content analysis of articles published by Hürriyet Daily News and Today’s Zamman during the month of August 2015 and informal interviews with refugees and an important member of civil society and refugee rights advocacy organisation.

Push and Pull Factors

In migration studies, the most central tool used to frame reasons for migration is based upon push and pull factors – push factors being the various reasons (social, economic, political and environmental) why individuals seek to leave their home area/country and pull factors being the various reasons (same as above) why individuals chose a specific area/country destination. At the time of writing this article, there are over 2 million individuals in Turkey ‘registered’ (we’ll get back to that later) as refugees, asylum-seekers or stateless persons. Mostly Syrians, the focus of this article is not to determine the push and pull factors justifying Turkey as an alternative to their war-torn motherland of Syria, as it is deemed that any individual reading world news in the past four years will have ascertained enough information on the subject. Rather, this article seeks to outline possible reasons why refugees living in Turkey (primarily Syrians, Afghanis, Iraqis and Iranians) are leaving for what they believe are greener pastures with better opportunities for sustainable livelihoods.

Speaking to a group of Iranian refugees, life as a refugee in Turkey was described by uncertainty and a long (and seemingly endless) paper trail that has no guarantees. “The United Nations have certain rules and processes that they have developed over time, but things aren’t working here and the possibility of moving to another host country seems impossible at this point”, said one respondent. Another interviewee discussed the economic challenges of having refugee status: “You know, the United Nations provides money to host countries. That money is supposed to be distributed to refugees when they go to the police station every week to confirm that they are still living in their assigned city. We never see that money, but we don’t have any way to report this. So the money doesn’t come, and as Iranians we also don’t have the possibility for official employment in Turkey”. As the conversation progressed, the group claimed that refugees and asylum seekers from other countries, namely Syria, have more rights than Iranians and that this is largely due to active negotiation projects set out by the Iranian governments to pressure host countries to limit refugee rights: “They [the Iranian government] want to block our ability to function in another society, which they believe will force us to come home and face the consequences for our betrayal”.

But Syrians don’t have it easy either, and their status is also wrought with controversy. Syrians are considered to have refugee status within the UN framework, but this is not what they are considered within the borders of Turkey. When Turkey signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees, they added a geographical limitation where migrants from Eastern countries would not be granted refugee status. The result: Syrians have been labelled as “guests” of Turkey. Although some may see this as a pure issue of semantics, this has had large implications for the way that Syrians can access services and rights ensured under the Convention. For instance, “rights to education, access to justice, employment and other fundamental freedoms” [1] are included as refugee rights, and although Turkish authorities have admittedly provided access to education for some age levels, legal access to employment has yet to have been granted to refugees. Furthermore, where Minister of Work and Social Security Faruk Çelik has indicated that Turkey has no plans to grant work permits for Syrian refugees [2], no light is in sight on the employment issue. The “guest” status has been an issue of controversy for years now, taking on an important and recurring theme within analytical reports on the refugee crisis in Turkey (see [3], [4] and [5])

The facts are clear: refugees in Turkey are in legal limbo. And this has led to a slew of unintended consequences. Seeking financial freedom and stability, refugees have sought work within the informal job market. Some are street vendors, but many have flocked to local industries where they receive small pay, but pay nonetheless. Employers have chosen the cheaper alternative, laying off Turks across the country in favour of greater economic gains. Although a soft form of slavery may be a sensationalist way of looking at it, it is undeniably a form of exploitation. Turks, as a result, have grown distaste for this practice and tensions have sparked quarrels between locals and refugees in the Eastern provinces where this is most prevalent. In an interview with a leading refugee advocacy group that preferred to stay anonymous, a spokesperson indicated that “the two largest issues facing Turkey’s refugee crisis are (a) employment security and (b) xenophobic sentiment”.

So, in light of an increasingly prevalent refugee crisis in Turkey, along with the many hurdles that refugees must endure, some are seeking refuge in alternate countries. Land borders between Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria have been strengthened and militarized, leading to one last option: travel by sea. One informant explained: “I’m considering buying a dingy, getting a ride to a place where the distance between Turkey and a Greek island is relatively short, and setting out to sea under the cover of night”. Another continues: “We know Greece is in bad shape right now, and our intention is not to stay there, but at least if we go somewhere in the EU then it will be easier to eventually make our way to somewhere with more opportunities, like Germany or Belgium”. In discussing alternate and more legal mechanisms to gain access to Europe, an interviewee said “the way the UN picks who can or can’t go to a third party country in Europe is not transparent or just, this is the only way when you are tired of waiting”.

The Balkan Corridor

The issue of refugees gaining access to Europe through Greece has been so prominent that it has taken on its own title of “The Balkan Corridor” [6]. Refugees leaving Turkey typically make their way to nearby Greek islands. Once they arrive, Athens is typically the next destination in mind, with the eventual hope of reaching Western Europe by land travel through countries such as Macedonia, Serbia and Hungary. UNHCR has stated that between January 1st and August 14th of this year, 158,456 refugees have crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey to the Greek islands [7]. Below is a map based on information gained through a 20-day content analysis of two Turkish newspapers: Hürriyet Daily News and Today’s Zamman. It indicates islands that were mentioned as destinations chosen by refugees leaving Turkey by illegal means of sea travel.

Greek island refugee destinations from Turkey, data from August 2015 content analysis. Basemap provided by OpenStreetMap (OSM). Nicolas Parent, 2015.
Greek island refugee destinations from Turkey, data from August 2015 content analysis. Basemap provided by OpenStreetMap (OSM). Nicolas Parent, 2015.


Determined by geospatial analysis, below is a list of distances between mainland Turkey and specified Greek islands:

-Lesbos: 14 Km
-Chios: 7.3 Km
-Samos: 2 Km
-Agathonissi: 19 Km
-Farmakonissi: 11.3 Km
-Kos: 6.3 Km

The above-mentioned distances make it seem easy for those who chose to take the sea route to Greece, but it is not without risks. In a news article, it was claimed that “migrants trying to sail from Turkey to Greece are increasingly reporting being attacked by gunmen trying to prevent them from reaching Europe, according to multiple sources” [8]. Whilst taking to local sources in Turkey, they had heard of similar stories from friends attempting the crossing. One noted in an unnervingly cheerful tone “I don’t care if they flip my boat, I’ll have a life jacket on anyways. I just don’t want to get shot”.


Refugee means: “(…) someone who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” [9]

Asylum-seeker means: “(…) someone who says he or she is a refugee, but whose claim has not yet been definitively evaluated.” [10]

Stateless person means: “(…) a person who is not considered as a national by any State under the operation of its law”. This means that a stateless person is someone who does not have a nationality of any country. Some people are born stateless, while others become stateless over the course of their lives.” [11]



[1] International Justice Resource Center (undated). “Asylum & the rights of refugees”. Available online at:; accessed 20 August, 2015.

[2] Afanasieva, D. (2015). “Turkey will not give Syrian refugees right to work: Minister”. Hürriyet Daily News, August 8. Available online at:; accessed 23 August, 2015.

[3] Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (2011). “Syrian Refugees in Turkey: A Status in Limbo”. Available online at:; accessed 18 August, 2015.

[4] Ozden, S. (2013). “Syrian Refugees in Turkey”. Migration Policy Centre: Research Report. Available online at:; accessed 14 August, 2015.

[5] Icduygu, Ahmet (2015). “Syrian refugees in Turkey: The Long Road Ahead”. Migration Policy Institute: Reports – April 2015. Available online at:; accessed 20 August, 2015.

[6] Hürriyet Daily News (2015). “Thousands of migrants trapped on Macedonia border”. Hürriyet Daily News, August 22. Available online at:; accessed 23 August, 2015.

[7] Agence France-Press (2015). “Nearly 21,000 migrants arrived in Greece last week: UN”. Hürriyet Daily News, August 18. Available online at:; accessed 22 August, 2015.

[8] Agence France-Press (2015). “Migrants ‘attacked’ at sea between Greece and Turkey”. Hürriyet Daily News, August 1. Available online at:; accessed 22 August, 2015.

[9] UNHCR (undated). “Refugees”. United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Available online at:; accessed 23 August, 2015.

[10] UNHCR (undated). “Asylum-seekers”. United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Available online at:; accessed 23 August, 2015.

[11] UNHCR (undated). “What is statelessness?”. United Nations High Commission for Refugees. Available online at:; accessed 23 August, 2015.