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Protesters Cry for Help

Posted by vmsalama on October 23, 2005

Sudanese demonstrators desperate for relocation

(To view my photos from the Sudanese refugee protest, click here)


By Vivian Salama

Daily Star Staff

Sudanese Protest 

CAIRO:  “We want to be far, far, far away from Cairo,” reads one of many signs enclosing a makeshift camp outside the entrance of Moustafa Mahmoud Mosque in Mohendaseen.  

It’s been exactly 25 days now since an estimated 1,000 Sudanese refugees took the decision to launch a peaceful protest nearby the regional office of the UN Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).  Fed-up from being, what they call “victims of mismanagement,” families have come together, each carting a suitcase holding their sole possessions.  The group insists that UNHCR assist in their relocation, saying they can no longer endure the discrimination, inopportunity and abuse they experience in Egypt.   

Demonstrators say conditions are growing more horrid by the day.  Since they assembled, protestors allege a 28-year old man died of influenza, a pregnant woman miscarried and an infant died of untreated diarrhea.  Many more are falling ill as they spend their days and nights in the open-air.

“My two kids are coughing because the wind gets so strong at night” says Lisa Simon, 29.  “I came here with my bags and my kids because I want a solution to our problems.  The streets are not safe for us here.  People hit us with stones, this is normal for us.  Our men cannot work.  This can’t continue.”

“We have demands and the UNHCR knows our demands,” says Jack Pam, one of the spokesmen for the demonstrators.  “Finding jobs is difficult.  Our children are abused.  Our women are raped.  We will meet anyone at any hour of any day to solve our problems.”  

There are approximately two to three million Sudanese nationals living in Egypt today, according to recent statistics by the UNHCR.  Of those, more than 14,400 have refugee status, another 10,000 are seeking asylum.  The regional office stands some 30 meters away from the blanket-covered camp; the neighborhood, swarming with security and precautionary riot police – many of whom have no idea why they are there and who they are protecting.

The issue, UNHCR officials maintain, is that the people gathered along one side of Gamaat El Dowal Street are not under the jurisdiction of their organization.  Nonetheless, its officials insist that they have offered to meet with the group’s decision-making committee to see if a resolution is possible, but that only yesterday, they received word that the group was not interested to negotiate. 

            “We have absolutely nothing to defend ourselves against,” insists Damtew Dessalegne, Assistant Regional Representative for UNHCR.  “The situation in Egypt, for Sudanese nationals – including Sudanese refugees – is not as awful as it’s being described by some of the demonstrators and their advocates.  The economic difficulties that these refugees are facing are not any different than the difficulties millions of Egyptians are facing.”

            Through groups such as UNHCR, individuals are evaluated and investigated, and then granted legal refugee status with the final stamp of approval from the Egyptian government.  Those who are granted status receive a blue card – and now a yellow card given to asylum seekers, a different category in itself.  It is only with these cards that they can legally pursue any work opportunities. 

            “Here, they are not allowed to work without a permit and I’ve only met two (people) who have permits and that’s because they work for a radio station and they needed their languages,” explains Barbara Harrell-Bond, a professor of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo (AUC).  “There are 24,000 registered refugees in Egypt.  What donor is going to be worried about such a small number in such a huge country?  The reality is there are many, many more.”

            Refugee activists site several “rumors” casting doubt over the position of UNHCR.  First, Harrell-Bond notes that the high salaries of United Nations and UNHCR officials is a cause for concern, as displaced individuals like those gathered in Mohendaseen grow desperate for attention.  Dessalegne denounces such accusations, insisting that the salaries of his staff meet international guidelines set by the UN.  Word also circulates the camp that the Sudanese nationals would be granted $25 per day by UNHCR if they agree to gather at the park.    

            “We don’t give money if people stay; we don’t give money if people leave,” says Dessalegne.  “It’s up to them to decide when to leave and what to do next.  These people can stay there as long as they want.”

            The problem activists insist, is a lack of communication between UNHCR and the refugees.  Many of those gathered in Mohendaseen are not clear on their status.  In many cases, they do not know who qualifies for refugee status.  Many of the demonstrators remain optimistic that they will be relocated, be it to America, Australia, Canada or Finland.  Others have sought to convince demonstrators to withdraw their children from church schools in an effort to force UNHCR to make the Ministry of Education provide the children with equivalency exams.  False hopes, says Harrell-Bond.

            Further complicating the matter is the stance of the Sudanese government on the issue.  Demonstrators allege that late one night last week, a car from the Sudanese Embassy in Egypt circled the park, tempting people with alcohol as a way to provoke trouble.  Demonstrators allegedly retaliated, stealing the license plate from the vehicle.  Harrell-Bond possessed a photo of the plate in question, beside it, a recent copy of Al-Ahram Newspaper to verify it was current.         

            “You came here to get resettled, you didn’t come here for protection, so you’re not a refugee?  Resettlement is not a right,” insists Harrell-Bond.  “Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, they have not signed the [1951] Convention, so every refugee UNHCR gives status to has to be gotten out of the country, yet all the places for resettlement are centered in Cairo – why?  There’s no equity to the system – it has to be a political interest.” 

“This is not a refugee problem,” Dessalegne says.  “It is a mix of economic migration, development, poverty, and whatever.  They are not political refugees.  The majority are not even refugees recognized by UNHCR under the legal procedures.  Even if it is a refugee problem, it is not entirely a UNHCR problem, it is a problem of the government of Egypt.”


Also see Toddler Latest to Die in Sudanese Refugee Protest in Cairo


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