The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

Archive for the ‘Refugees’ Category

Letter from Kampala: Museveni’s Oil Bet

Posted by vmsalama on February 20, 2014

Letter from Kampala

Foreign Affairs
FEBRUARY 20, 2014

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, January 30, 2014. (Tiksa Negeri / Courtesy Reuters)

Feeble and gaunt from the illness that has eaten away at his body, Fideli Donge wobbled onto the porch of his mud-and-straw home, which is hidden by short palm trees off an isolated, craterous dirt road used mostly by barefooted pedestrians and the occasional bodaboda, an East African motorbike taxi. He’s in his 60s, he thinks, but a lifetime of hard labor and poverty has left him looking closer to 90. A few months ago, as Donge lay bedridden, and as his children and grandchildren — he has 52 altogether — worked the 20-acre farm that his family has owned for nearly half a century, men from the local municipality in his western Uganda village knocked at his door. 

“They told me that all the residents here have to leave and that they will give me a house or money,” Donge said. He and his family will have to abandon the land that they rely on for their own food and livelihood; they make pennies from the sale of maize, sugar cane, and cassava, a staple crop across Africa. “We don’t know when we will go, or where,” he said. The municipality promised Donge a new home, one large enough to accommodate his family, with soil rich enough to farm, but he hasn’t heard anything since the officials came to his door. “Until now, we are just waiting.”

Since 2008, more than 7,100 residents in surrounding villages have been given similar offers as part of the Ugandan government’s grand scheme to build an 11-square-mile oil refinery in the Lake Albert basin, along the country’s disputed border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The government hopes that the project will transform the downtrodden and war-torn nation, which just barely cracks the top 20 African economies by GDP, into the continent’s fifth-largest oil producer. The Ugandan government, in partnership with London-based Tullow Oil, discovered commercial reserves eight years ago, but production has been slowed by technical challenges and, especially, bureaucratic hang-ups. In early February, after years of protracted talks, the Ministry of Energy finally announced that it had signed deals with China’s CNOOC, France’s Total, and Tullow to build the estimated $15 billion worth of infrastructure needed to develop the oil fields. If successful, the government estimates reserves of up to 3.5 billion barrels of crude oil — enough to finally make this nation of 36 million people self-reliant for its energy needs.

The Lake Albert refinery is an ambitious venture, particularly for a government plagued by corruption allegations and with a history of empty promises. (Last year, the government’s auditor reported $100 million missing from the national budget.) But, perhaps, this time is different. The refinery is a pet project of President Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled the country for 28 years; he has repeatedly gone on record calling the reserves “my oil.” Uprooting Ugandan farmers to make way for a refinery might seem like a surprising move for Museveni, who spends so much time out of the capital of Kampala, at his own cattle ranch in southern Uganda, that he earned the nickname the Gentleman Farmer (it’s one of many). But the refinery plan is, ultimately, the perfect way to shore up a presidency for life. (click here to read more)

Posted in Africa, Arab Spring, Central African Republic, Constitution, corruption, Coup, Debt, Democratic Republic of Congo, Development, dictatorship, Domestic Abuse, Economy, Education, Elections, Employment, Foreign Policy, Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, Invisible Children, Kampala, Kenya, Kony, Labor, Lake Albert, Lake Victoria, Media, military, Museveni, North Africa, Oil, Politics, Poverty, Protests, Refugees, Somalia, South Sudan, Stop Kony, Sudan, Terrorism, Uganda | Leave a Comment »

Egypt: No Parliament, No Constitution, No President.

Posted by vmsalama on June 15, 2012

Greetings from Cairo, where there is NEVER a dull moment. The High Court decided today to dissolve the Islamist-dominated parliament, less than 36 hours before the presidential runoff. Here is my election preview, published by the Daily Beast. Observations to follow….

Showdown in Cairo: Egyptian High Court Dissolves Parliament

Egypt’s high court ruled the Islamist Parliament must dissolve immediately, paving the way for next week’s election winner to rise to power. But wasn’t the point of the revolution to avoid military and theocratic states? Vivian Salama reports.

Jun 14, 2012 

Daily Beast (click here to read original)

With just 36 hours to go until Egypt’s historic presidential election, the country has no Parliament and no new constitution. In a stunning 11th-hour decision, the country’s High Constitutional Court dissolved the Islamist-dominated Parliament, declaring that elections were unconstitutional, essentially leaving the new president at the mercy of the military. In the 17 months since Egyptians joined forces to topplePresident Hosni Mubarak, the country has evolved from one of collective euphoria to one limp with apprehension, this latest development sending the country into a tailspin.


Egyptians protest military rule in Tahrir Square // Photo by Vivian Salama

Egyptians will head to the polls June 16—many with heavy hearts—as they cast a final vote for a president, with the hope of dislodging themselves from more than a half century of status quo. But Tahrir Square still swells with protesters every few days—the upcoming vote creating a dilemma for many, pitting two of the least likely candidates against each other: one, an old guard from the defunct regime, the other, an Islamist heavyweight. With no legislative body to ensure checks and balances, the new president may have to take on the powerful military establishment on his own.

The military, de facto ruler of the country since Mubarak’s resignation, has suffered a severe decline in public opinion following a number of violent clashes with protesters that evoked a bitter outcry. Making matters worse, a government decree passed earlier this week allows military police and intelligence to detain civilians and refer them to military tribunals—a ruling reminiscent of Mubarak-era tactics used to crush dissent. The military may soon surrender the top seat, but recent developments signal that it will continue to play an active role in governance, regardless of who wins.

All the while, the economy is in shambles, and citizens who were already struggling to make ends meet before the revolution are now barely getting by, fueled only by hope that change for the better is on the brink.

Facing off this weekend: Ahmed Shafiq, 70, a former Air Force commander and the last prime minister appointed by Mubarak, and Mohammed Morsi, 60, a U.S.-educated engineer and chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party. For weeks, the two have appeared in campaign ads and traveled across Egypt, meeting citizens and addressing their concerns, with hope of establishing new loyalties amid this turbulent period. Egypt’s high court also issued a last-minute ruling allowing Shafiq to continue his bid, despite his links to the previous regime. (more…)

Posted in Arab, Arab Spring, dictatorship, Economy, Education, Egypt, Elections, Employment, Foreign Policy, Freedom of Speech, Gaza, Hamas, Hosni Mubarak, Israel, Judiciary, Middle East, military, Mubarak, Muslim Brotherhood, Newsweek, Politics, Recession, Refugees, Religion, Salafi, Social Media, Succession, United States | Leave a Comment »

“The Protester”: A Photo Journal of the Egyptian Revolution

Posted by vmsalama on December 15, 2011

Thanks to TIME Magazine for recognizing the revolutionaries all over the world… I’ve been meaning to write this for quite some time but only finding the chance to do it now.

A year ago when Mohammed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor in Tunisia, burned himself out of frustration from a political system that neglected him, I was en route to Beirut ahead of the Christmas holiday and writing, mainly, about the credit crunch in the Arab Gulf states and mounting concerns that the banking system would not soon recover from the blow. Days after I returned from Beirut, my host, Rania Abouzeid, came to stay with me in Dubai in a desperate attempt to fly to Tunisia, where flights were almost entirely grounded amid an uprising across the country. It was hard to imagine then that the desperate act of this young man not only set in motion a revolution in his country, but around across the region.

Jan. 27, 2011: me and Rania Abouzeid heading to Cairo (at 3am -- ughhh!!!)

On January 14, 2011, following a month of violent protests against his rule, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali – Tunisia’s president since 1987 — was forced to flee to Saudi Arabia along with his wife and their three children.  A week later, Rania and I were on a flight to Cairo where calls for a revolution had begun to circulate on social media websites. They were days I will never forget, and with TIME Magazine’s 2011 Person of the Year issue being dedicated this year to The Protester, I want to share with you all a few memories and photos of the protesters I met in Cairo this year. (Click here to read some of my stories on the Arab Spring)

On January 27, two days after the protests officially begun, Internet and mobile phone service was completely cut off in Egypt and we were left guessing where crowds were gathering. After trying a few spots around town, Rania and I decided to go toward the Mohendiseen neighborhood near the Moustafa Mahmoud mosque. It was a good guess! About 500 protesters had gathered after Friday prayers where they came face to face with riot police chanting slogans like “The people want the end of the regime” and “Hosni Mubarak: illegitimate.”

We began to march, with the intention of going toward Tahrir Square. (Rania and I were quickly separated in the crowd and were each forced to continue reporting on our own). Weaving through side streets and alleys in the Cairo neighborhood, people watched us from balconies, throwing bottles of water, garlic and onions, and bottles of vinegar – all simply remedies for tear gas inhalation, because everyone knew what lie ahead.  The longer we marched, the more the crowd swelled, with protesters called on those people in their homes not to be afraid.
Photo by Vivian Salama

Cairo, January 27, 2011/Photo by Vivian Salama

photo by Vivian Salama

Cairo, January 27, 2011/Photo by Vivian Salama

Photo by Vivian Salama
Jan 27: Protesters Near Moustafa Mahmoud Mosque/Photo by Vivian SalamaS

Sure enough, we were quickly confronted by tanks and soldiers firing tear gas at the crowd. I’ve never seen so much camaraderie in my life. Soldiers at a nearby military hospital threw medical masks at the protesters and pharmacists handed them out to the crowds. At one point I felt quite ill from the tear gas. A man approached from behind me and pressed a vinegar-covered mask against my mouth and nose. A nearby vendor (who probably struggles to feed his own family with the pennies he earns) emptied his refrigerator, handing out water bottles and cans of soda to the fatigued protesters.

Every where I looked, people were helping each other, helping strangers tie their masks, sharing water bottles, aiding those who were most affected by the gas.

There was one point, marching with the crowd from Mohendiseen, when we approached a major intersection and I heard roaring cheers. I jumped up on a car to see what had happened and was personally overcome by emotion. From three different directions, massive groups of protesters were approaching the intersection – the other groups coming from as far as Giza and the Nasr City. They did this without Internet or mobile phones.

Photo by Vivian Salama

Cairo, January 27, 2011/Photo by Vivian Salama

Groups of young men pushed to the front of the crowd and began to battle riot police, taking over their vehicles and chasing them away. Our group, now numbered in the hundreds of thousands, pushed slowly across the historic Qasr El Nil bridge in an attempt to move into Tahrir. There were moments when I worried that an attack by the military would trigger a stampede – we were stuffed tightly onto the bridge. But every time protesters began to push back, the young men in the crowd would grab the women in the crowd and push them against the bridge railing so to protect them from being knocked down.

photo by Vivian Salama

Some were more prepared than others!! Cairo Jan. 27, 2011/Photo by Vivian Salama

It was a long night with protesters burning the ruling National Democratic Party headquarters and battling with soldiers in Tahrir. Riot police trucks were set on fire (and the Semiramis Hotel, where many journalists took refuge) was partially on fire for part of the evening. I was trapped in Tahrir for the night and forced to take a last minute room at the Semiramis. I woke up early the next morning to a different Cairo, where charred military tanks stood in the middle of Tahrir Square and smoke billowed from the NDP headquarters and, sadly, from the adjacent National Museum. It would take another two weeks (only!) to overthrow Hosni Mubarak but that first Friday was by far the most memorable. There is an Arabic expression that often refers to the Egyptian people as being “light blooded” (light hearted/good senses of humor). They definitely showed their spirit throughout the frustrating 19 days (and 30 years) it took to shake up their political system.

Photo by Vivian Salama

Tahrir Square, January 28, 2011/Photo by Vivian Salama

Photo by Vivian Salama

Tahrir Square, January 28, 2011/Photo by Vivian Salama

me in Tahrir (late January 2011)

I visited Bahrain in the weeks that followed and I spent a lot of time covering the uprisings in Yemen and, less so, the ongoing crisis in Syria. After years of battling misguided stereotypes of terrorism and violence, these protesters have showed the world that they desire freedom and a decent standard of living and they have the right to demand it just as those in Europe and the US demand of their governments.

The Tunisians, Egyptians and all the other citizens around the world fighting for democracy have a very long and bumpy road ahead.  The TIME Magazine Person of the Year issue questions whether there is a global tipping point for frustration. I believe what happened this year is, in large part, because of overpopulation and because of the global economic slowdown touched societies rich and poor – but toppled those that were already on the brink before markets crash. The world is smaller than ever thanks to the Internet and various technologies that allow us to share experiences with people on opposite corners of the world. As we continue to get closer, and the world, smaller, it will become impossible to distance ourselves from even the most seemingly remote events.

Photo by Vivian Salama

Cairo, January 27, 2011/Photo by Vivian Salama

Posted in American, Arab, Arab League, Arab Spring, Arabic, Bloggers, Cairo University, Censorship, Coptic, Culture, dictatorship, discrimination, Economy, Education, Egypt, Elections, Employment, Environment, Foreign Policy, Hosni Mubarak, Internet, Journalism, Libya, Media, Middle East, military, Mubarak, Muslim Brotherhood, Negotiation, Obama, Politics, Qaddafi, Qatar, Recession, Refugees, Religion, State of Emergency, Succession, Syria, Terrorism, Tunisia, United Nations, United States, Yemen | Leave a Comment »

Pakistan’s Biggest Threat Isn’t Foreign

Posted by vmsalama on May 7, 2009

PostGlobal – WashingtonPost.com

by Vivian Salama

Ask 10 Pakistanis what the cause of their country’s security breakdown is, and you are likely to hear at least 10 answers. One of the most widespread beliefs is that Pakistan’s problems, much like those of neighboring Afghanistan, were caused by foreign entities – or, more specifically, foreign meddling in domestic affairs.

Regardless of how bad the situation may appear, many I’ve spoken with here in Pakistan are skeptical that any foreign players know how to solve Pakistan’s domestic problems. But after what I’ve seen here, I disagree.

Pakistan is in dire need of the proper financing to get it back on its feet and help it address the economic and social problems that might be causing its downfall. However, if the United States has a genuine desire to see a stable Pakistan, then President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton must distance themselves from the shortsighted policies of the Bush administration, whether that be military assistance or occasional drone attacks. Recovery can only come in the form of hefty economic development and an overhaul of Pakistan’s outdated infrastructure. We saw one positive step in this direction this week: the trade and transit agreement signed by Pakistan and Afghan leaders in Washington on Wednesday aimed at increasing commerce and foreign investment.


President Obama met with Pakistan's President Asif Zardari and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai in Washington on Wednesday

President Obama met with Pakistan's President Asif Zardari and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai in Washington on Wednesday


In recent months, a financial boost from governments including the U.S., Japan and Saudi Arabia has further emphasized the idea that the key to curbing violence in Pakistan is economic and social development. Pakistan, which recently signed a loan package with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for $7.6 billion, has experienced a significant economic decline in recent years as its inflation rate climbed to 25 percent and its stocks plummeted, falling an average 35 percent last year. All major rating agencies have downgraded Pakistan and the recent surge in terrorist-related attacks has caused most new investments to dry up. What’s worse, economists in Pakistan are predicting significant job losses over the next two years of anywhere from 3 to 4 million people, further exacerbating the crisis faced by Pakistan’s poor and struggling middle class.

Further exacerbating Pakistan’s instability is the growing number of displaced persons in the country. Currently more than 1.7 million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan. 45 percent of those reside in refugee villages and the rest are scattered among host communities, according to UNHCR. However, recent violence in the Swat Valley and neighboring Buner and Dir has forced hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis to flee, leaving the overburdened Pakistani government scrambling for solutions.

Many of the citizens here are scared. Even in Lahore, which is considered relatively safe, a series of recent attacks have left many on edge. Many dual passport holders are now opting to leave for lack of a better option. Many here have little confidence in their government’s ability to cap this growing threat.

Those countries willing to support Pakistan through financial assistance have a responsibility to ensure that the money is properly allocated. Better roads and bridges, more job opportunities through business development, and further development of the country’s energy sector could provide hope to an increasingly disenfranchised population and move this country forward.

Cooperation is a two-way street. In return, Pakistan must be more transparent with donors as the security situation worsens. Pakistani forces have been spread thin by military operations in the Swat Valley and neighboring districts. The Taliban will continue to advance across the country’s North West Frontier Province. The Pakistani government must not allow pride to get the best of it. The country has long been fearful that any foreign intervention could compromise its nuclear program – but domestic entities pose a threat that is far more grim. The time to act is now.

Posted in Economy, Pakistan, Refugees, Taliban, United States | Leave a Comment »

Call for new inquiry into Sudanese protest assaults

Posted by vmsalama on December 30, 2007

Thanks to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights for sending this along.  This story only continues to get sadder.  I photographed this protest extensively in the days leading up to its violent breakup exactly two years ago.  To view the photos, click here.

CAIRO — Five Egyptian and international human rights organizations today called on President Hosni Mubarak to authorize an independent judicial inquiry into the December 30, 2005 police assault on Sudanese protestors – refugees, asylum seekers and migrants – in Cairo that resulted in the deaths of 27 persons and injured scores more.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Hisham Mubarak Law Center and the Nadim Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence said that an independent judicial inquiry should also examine the conduct of  the initial investigation into the incident by the Dokki Prosecution Office, which found no evidence of police or official misconduct. The groups reviewed a copy of that initial investigation and found a concerted effort to absolve the police of any wrongdoing.   
“President Mubarak should use the second anniversary of the police action against Sudanese protestors to initiate a complete and transparent investigation of what really took place,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. “The public prosecutor’s total exoneration of the police lacks any semblance of credibility.”
In the early hours of December 30, 2005, a force of nearly 4,000 Egyptian police and security officers surrounded a makeshift camp in Mustafa Mahmoud Square in Cairo’s Mohandisin neighborhood, near the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, where for three months hundreds of Sudanese refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants had engaged in a peaceful sit-in protest. According to media accounts at the time, police fired from water cannons into the crowd and then entered in force, beating people indiscriminately. The episode resulted in the deaths of at least 27 of the Sudanese, including 11 children and eight women. An investigation by the public prosecutor’s office in Dokki concluded in May 2006 that all the deaths “resulted from a stampede,” and found no wrongdoing on the part of the police.
The government never made public the written decision to close the investigation, but the five groups recently obtained a copy of the decision ( http://hrw.org/pub/2007/mena/dokkiNyabaDecisionMustafaMahmud.pdf ). 
The government’s initial “no fault” conclusion appears in a 16-page memorandum dated May 20, 2006 and signed by Wael Hussein, chief of the Dokki Prosecution Office. The memorandum reveals serious failures in the official investigation into the killings, and shows how the public prosecutors and state forensic doctors collaborated to absolve the police from any responsibility for the 27 deaths.

For example, the memorandum states that none of the police officers and security officials interviewed by public prosecutors was able to name the official who issued the order to launch the operation or the security official who led the anti-riot force responsible for carrying it out. Among the 127 police and security officers interviewed, the public prosecutors directly asked 28 police officers, two State Security Intelligence officers, the district chief of criminal investigations, and the top security official for the northern Giza district if they could identify the officers in charge. According to the memorandum, all 28 claimed they did not know the names of the officers, with one of them citing “the presence of numerous police leaders representing different sectors at the site of the incident.” The memorandum shows that public prosecutors made no serious effort to investigate this apparent attempt to protect those responsible for ordering the attack on the protestors.
Prosecutors also interviewed four eyewitnesses who all claimed that the protestors initiated the violence by attacking the police. The government put the total number of protestors at 1,107, and at least 650 protestors were in state custody for several weeks following the assault, but prosecutors managed to interview only one Sudanese woman who was injured in the attacks.
“Prosecutors were clearly more interested in protecting the police and vilifying the victims than in establishing the truth of what really happened on December 30,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program.
The memorandum also shows how Justice Ministry forensic experts endeavored to obscure any criminal responsibility for the deaths. The autopsy reports cite marks of “injuries resulting from crashing against solid, rough-surfaced objects,” a death resulting from “bruises in the head and neck leading to a brain concussion and a failure of higher vital brain centers,” and another death “resulting from a head injury leading to nerve fiber injuries.” The forensic experts nonetheless concluded that all the deaths resulted from a “stampede” leading to asphyxia, and claimed there was “a lack of any signs indicating the use of excessive force in assaulting them.”
Chief Prosecutor Wael Hussein relied on these forensic reports and on the statements of police officers to conclude that there was “absolutely no relation between the deaths and the conduct of police forces in dispersing the protestors.” Citing “lack of evidence,” Hussein decided to exclude the charge of premeditated murder. No one has alleged that the killings were premeditated, but the prosecutor failed to indict any police officer with manslaughter or unintended injury, or even with the misdemeanor offense of carrying out his duties with cruelty or brutality, as per article 129 of the Penal Code.
Instead, the chief prosecutor charged the protestors en masse with committing crimes of manslaughter, unintended injury, resisting authorities, and the deliberate destruction of property. Citing the inability to identify the perpetrators of these crimes, the Public Prosecutor’s Office then decided to suspend the investigations into possible police misconduct and instructed the police to continue the search for perpetrators.  
“Charging the protestors with serious crimes and exonerating the police of any wrongdoing is the absurd but inevitable outcome of a sham investigation,” said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “Two years after their deaths, the victims of police brutality in Mustafa Mahmoud Square still await justice.”
The five organizations called on the Egyptian government to open an independent judicial inquiry into the killings in order to identify those who ordered, led, and implemented the attacks, and to hold them responsible for any unnecessary or excessive use of force that resulted in the large number of deaths. In April 2007, the UN Committee on the Rights of Migrant Workers requested that the investigation into the killings “be reopened in order to clarify the circumstances leading to the deaths of the Sudanese migrants. Whatever those circumstances, [the committee] also recommends that measures be adopted to prevent the occurrence of similar events in the future.” The inquiry should also look into the serious, and apparently deliberate, failures of the earlier investigation into the killings, and make the results of this inquiry public.  

Posted in Egypt, Middle East, Mubarak, Politics, Refugees, Sudan | Leave a Comment »

Iraqi refugees swell pressure on Syria’s social services

Posted by vmsalama on October 15, 2007

Iraqi refugees continue to flood into neighboring countries – Syria and Jordan especially.  This is an interesting report fromAl-Jazeera’s English network.  I recommend that you take a few minutes to watch it.

Posted in Iraq, Refugees, Syria | Leave a Comment »

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


(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.”

Posted in Arab, Daily Star Lebanon, Egypt, Refugees, Sudan | Leave a Comment »

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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