Wanderlust…

The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Toddler latest to die in Sudanese refugee protest in Cairo

Posted by vmsalama on December 13, 2005

Demonstrators say 4-year-old died of cold temperatures, poor nutrition

By Vivian Salama
Special to The Daily Star
Tuesday, December 13, 2005

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(to see more of my photos from the Sudanese refugee protest, click here)

CAIRO: Alongside the grassy park which lies in front of the Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque in Mohandiseen, children ages 5 through 10 stood shoulder to shoulder, each holding up a photo of a dead toddler – underneath the photos were messages calling him a martyr. Deng Kual, 4, is the latest person to die as the peaceful protest against the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) enters its third month.

Demonstrators say he died from the combination of cold temperatures and poor nutrition.

The number of protesters has more than doubled since the group decided to stage their demonstration on September 30 near the regional office of UNHCR.

Fed-up from being what they call “victims of mismanagement,” some 4,000 people of varying refugee status 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.

However, with the death of Kual and two others before him, the group is now coming under fire, even by activists who are dedicated to defending their rights.

“I’m a strong critic of UNHCR, but I’m also a strong critic of this kind of protest because people are being manipulated to be there,” said Barbara Harrell-Bond, a professor of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo.

New rumors have circulated that group leaders told the Sudanese community that the protest was mandatory. Meanwhile, UNHCR has made efforts to find solutions with the group, but spokesmen for the group say their offers are not good enough.

“UNHCR says it will get them houses,” added Bond, who had been a harsh critic of the organization in the early days of the protest. “They’ve made a lot of concessions for them. If they had a closed file, they could send over information. They brought people here from Geneva because it’s a big enough deal.”

“I’m a refugee – how can I possibly have a house?” asked Mohammad Matar, a spokesman for the group, in response to some of the offers made by UNHCR. “They suggest local integration – if I accept local integration, will the Egyptian government give me nationality? Never! Will they give me a chance to vote? Will my children have the chance to attend good public schools? Never!”

Having originally approached the organization with 20 demands, they say they have compromised, limiting their demands to only 11. A priority, Matar insists, is to reopen any closed files of all the Sudanese refugees living in Egypt.

Those with closed files lose virtually all hope of obtaining official refugee status, but the group feels the criteria must be re-evaluated.

Another demand by leaders of the Sudanese protest is for a re-evaluation of all those possessing a “yellow card,” the identification card for those granted asylum. While full refugee status does not offer many more privileges than those receiving asylum benefits, the Sudanese feel it will make a major difference in the lives of those people.

Finally, representatives of the protestors say there are 540 missing Sudanese nationals that neither UNHCR nor the Egyptian police have acknowledged. UNHCR staunchly denied this, insisting that each of those cases was investigated and the organization found that in many cases, they had been relocated or that their status had changed.

“It is not a refugee problem,” Damtew Dessalegne, assistant regional representative of UNHCR Egypt told The Daily Star Egypt in an earlier interview. “It is a mix of economic migration, development, and poverty, whatever. They are not political refugees. The majority are not even refugees recognized by UNHCR under the legal procedures.”

“We realize that our children are suffering, but the people here say this place is better than other places,” insisted Matar. “This place is more safe. This is the closest thing we have to a family. This is the only real home we have.”

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