Slow Death of Darfurians out of Sight in Egypt
Leben Nelson Moro*
Refugees and Egyptian police fought running battles for hours in the streets and lawns close to the UNHCR building in a Cairo’s neighborhood of Mohandesin on 25 August 2004. The refugees intended to present a memorandum to UNHCR urging it to reconsider its suspension of refugee status determination for Sudanese. Instead, they were met by the police who blocked off the entrance to the UNHCR building and used force to push them back. The intention of the police in using force to stop the peaceful demonstration developed into confrontations between the two sides during which many refugees and some policemen were injured. 22 refugees including Darfurians were detained.
We interviewed 31 refugees who all accused UNHCR’s officials of deliberately inviting the police to provoke violence to silence them. According to 14 respondents, the incidence reminded them of the 1994 UNHCR Action against Sudanese refugees during which the police tortured women and children for staging a protest on the UNHCR premises. The UNHCR, apparently caught off guard by the violence, blamed an Egyptian civil society organization for inciting refugees to violence. The UNHCR was unwilling to reverse its decision of denying for Sudanese the right of refugee status determination and the meeting was failure anyway. Contrary to the skepticism of Sudanese refugees, the UNHCR seemingly thought Sudanese should think about returning home than resettlement in other countries. The paper discusses refugees’ resentments, distancing of UNHCR from refugee concerns, and suggestions addressing refugee grievances. We draw on our own personal refuge experiences in Egypt and research which we conducted for years with Sudanese refugees in Cairo.
Fleeing ‘Genocide’ in Darfur
The man-made Tsunami in Darfur was described, in 2004, as “genocide” by the former US Secretary of State, as “ethnic cleansing” by UN Secretary General and as “…the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis” by the former UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Sudan . In truth, the massacres had been going on since mid 1980s but the world never took note of them until Darfur refugee organizations in Cairo and Western countries and several Sudanese academics and activists including the authors of this paper painstakingly worked to convince the international community that genocide was in the making in Darfur. About three million people have been either internally displaced (many of them are exposed to all sorts of torture) or forced into refuge in Chad and other countries including Egypt where a significant number (about 8000) of Darfurians live in limbo. The UNHCR recognized some of these forced migrants as refugees which helped a small proportion of them to be resettled in countries such as the US, Australia and Canada. The majority of refugees have been locally settled with the expectation that they would integrate into Egyptian society or wait until they are able to return home. However, the UNHCR’s decision of locally settling Sudanese is the evidence that it did not conduct thorough field studies with refugees to grasp the truth about their daily experiences. It seems as if it UNHCR officials based their decision on meetings with individuals from Egyptian government like Mona Khashaba (Egypt’s Ambassador to Ukraine) who proudly stated in 2001:
Egyptians have always welcomed refugees with open arms since time immemorial. Since the days of [the Biblical] Joseph and his brethren to the time of the Holy Family, Egypt was regarded as a safe haven- a country where refugees fleeing famine, war and political instability can find security and sustenance. The Qur’an specifically enjoins Muslims to enter Egypt assuredly and without fear.
Mona Khashaba was responsible for refugee issues in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for several years before she was appointed Ambassador to Ukraine and she closely worked with many organizations including UNHCR. As a country that has welcomed refugees ‘with open arms [emphasis added] since time immemorial’, Egypt was among the countries that drafted the Geneva Convention of 1951, ratified UN’s Protocol of 1967 and signed the OAU’s of Convention of 1969. Egyptian authorities also utilized the treaties and charters which they signed with their Sudanese counterparts to further declare that Egypt is a ‘second home of Sudanese’ which easily convinces individuals who have never been in close contacts with Sudanese refugees that the latter are treated as citizens. However, these clamors of generosity towards Sudanese refugees and Darfurians in particular are pervaded with a lot of hypocrisy. None of our 31 respondents was given work permit, 17 of these have been to prison at least once (11 for displaying goods on street sides and six during racial profiling arrests), and 16 of them (nine locally settled) received the only one time little amount (ranging from 180 to 300 Egyptian pounds) which Caritas pays to these recognized Sudanese refugees who are not elderly and do not have children. Three of the nine locally settled individuals have been officially recognized as refugees for more than two years but that is the amount they ever received. All respondents live in apartments whose monthly rents range between 300 and 700 Egyptian pounds (utilities not included). 24 respondents paid the first month rent, apartment insurance (equals the amount of monthly rent) and telephone insurance (equals half of the apartment rent) before they moved in. For example, Ummad, a 27 year old Fur, who rented with other four roommates a two bedroom apartment for 450 pounds a month in Alfimaskan in February 2004, paid 1120 pounds before they moved in. Yousif Hilal and colleagues’ description of the apartments where those whom they simply labeled “Africans” live is largely true. Those Africans are the dark skinned Sudanese who include Darfurians and they usually live in old and poorly furnished apartments in which they crowd up. However, reporters of Rose El Yousef only provided one answer to the question: “What makes these Africans live in such a crowded way?” Their sole answer was that because they were very cheap. That is true because Sudanese are not diplomats, business people or tourists- they came to seek for refuge and yet they pay more than double of the rent which Egyptians would have paid for the same apartments. The most immediate answer should have been: “Egyptian law does not allow them to work, UNHCR does not provide more than useless papers since Egyptian police and security does not recognize them, and those who try to become self employed (e.g. street vendors) are often irritated by Egyptian security and baltajya (hooligans). For instance, Dikko is a recognized refugee and as UNHCR does not help him with living, he borrowed little money and started a self-employment activity of selling cheaper items (e.g. wallets, cigarette-lighters, etc.) at a market in al-Giza Province. One evening while he was waiting for the bus, Dikko was taken by two security men who told him to free himself (bribe them). He insisted that he bought nothing the whole day and he took out his UNHCR blue card and showed it to them assuming that it will free him. The men tore the card and told him that they did not want to see him back again. Dikko reported the incidence to UNHCR office that chose one of its officials to follow up the issue at the police section where he had reported the incidence. After having discussed the issue with police administration, the UNHCR official came out and convinced Dikko to report his blue card as lost and not torn by security officers.
UNHCR and Arriving Sudanese Refugees
Since June 2004, all Darfurians and other Sudanese applying to the UNHCR have been granted blanket temporary refugee status. They are automatically excluded from the refugee status determination procedure which means the Darfurians are protected from refoulement, but are excluded from consideration for resettlement in third countries. However, the refugees on temporary protection hardly get any humanitarian assistance. The UNHCR support mostly goes to large families and consequently many Darfurians are forced to fend for themselves with no help from the UNHCR since most of the recently arriving Darfurians in Cairo are single men.
The world received the news of genocide in Darfur as a sudden explosion in 2003 but for indigenous Darfurians it was already an old story; because, since mid 1980s, they were excluded from the positions of power and their activities were closely monitored throughout the country. In Darfur many indigenous males were gunned down on the roads, in farms and pasture areas. Consequently, many young men left Darfur to riverine Sudan from where some of them departed to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Others crossed the desert to Libya. Although it appeared to outsiders as if the young men were running for economic reasons, in reality they were running away to safe their lives. Many Darfurians came to Egypt in 1990s and applied for refugee status determination, but out of over 700 of them who applied between 1994 and 1998 only seven were recognized as refugees and three of these were resettled in the US. There were rumors in Darfur refugee community that Sudanese opposition misinformed the UNHCR authorities that Darfurians should not be recognized as refugees since it was Darfurians who rule Sudan. Whether or not the Sudanese opposition in Cairo spread the rumors, UNHCR authorities believed that Darfurians were rulers of Sudan as Kolo (respondent) told us:
The person who interviewed me was very friendly. After he completed interviewing me he started an informal discussion during which he told me that the information they had in the office was that Darfurians were economic immigrants than refugees as Sudanese government was mostly run by them. When I asked him: “Who are those Darfurians who run the country?” He replied: “Ali al-Haj, Mohamed al-Ameen Khalifa and al-Tijani Adam Attahir.” I responded: “But these were only three individuals at the time when more than 90% of those who run the country are belonged to three small ethnic groups that inhabit on the Nile banks to the north of Khartoum.
The same information about Darfurians being rulers of the country was often repeated in northern Sudanese communities in Cairo. During al-Mahdi’s last rule to the country (1986-1989) Northern Sudanese were again heard complaining that the county was ruled by Gharraba (Western Sudanese). However, part of the truth is that many Northern Sudanese dislike seeing Darfurians assuming important positions in the country to the extent that they imagine the presence of one Darfurian in an important position as many Darfurians holding similar positions. This hatred was generated by Arab nationalism that has been boiled up by the presence of Israel in the region and consequently indigenous nations who share countries with Arabs were marked off by Arab leaders as dangerous and therefore worth to be destroyed. So the genocide in Darfur is a manifestation of Arab nationalism and as it removes the dyadic camouflage of Christianity and Islam, Egypt stood beside Sudanese government to dismiss Darfur problem as ethnic rather than racial conflict. Therefore the indigenous Darfur refugees in Egypt were reduced to victims of ethnic rather than racial conflict in which Arab nationalism engineered by Sudanese government played a central role.
Scavenging in The 6th of October City
The majority of Egyptians live in Cairo, Alexandria and other urban areas, where most of Darfurian refugees also reside. To reduce the pressure on the main cities, the Egyptian government embarked on building satellite cities, one of which is The 6th of October City. Some Darfurian refugees moved to The 6th of October City in search of relatively cheap accommodation and manual jobs. These flats are generally of deplorable state. Fonddor , a former Nurse in Darfur, claimed that more than 1,000 Sudanese, mostly from Darfur, lived in The 6th of October City, and survived by foraging on garbage dumps for metallic items which are sold to a factory dealing in scrap metal. Not all Sudanese refugees in Cairo encounter the same working conditions. However, they generally face similar vulnerability, regardless of their background in Sudan and their legal status in Cairo.
The refuse dump in The 6th of October City is a huge expanse composed of desert soil and decaying waste materials that were dumped in the desert a few years ago. Easily identifiable were children shoes, small packets of McDonalds ketchup, parts of a vehicle battery, broken sheets of glass, and plastic ampoules. The waste materials, some of which appeared hazardous, originated from homes, fast food shops, hospitals, building sites, factories and other places. The refugees expressed serious fear of catching fatal illnesses, especially chest ailments. Keitkei, the Fur who led us to the garbage dump, claimed that 13 of the refugees developed respiratory problems because of the dust and other materials they inhaled. He claimed that one person died of a chest infection picked up in the area and others are seriously ill with tuberculosis. The take-home income is very small compared to the expenses refugees have to meet.
Refugees Foraging in the Dump
The refugees dug up the metal items in the refuse dump using small ‘hoes’, and worked bending down for hours. According to Nolla, Irrei and Omboshei (young male Fur ), the income was not worth the toil but they had no other source of income to fall back on. Irrei explained that they came to work early in the morning and returned home late in the evening. He said on good days it was possible to get 10 kilograms of metallic items, which was worth about 10 Egyptian pounds (less than a British sterling) and part of it is used in transportation. Moreover, he claimed that they occasionally bribed Egyptians guarding the dump to allow them access it.
Several dealers purchased the pieces of metal recovered from the dump. One of them is a Northern Sudanese. Keitkei said the factory buying the scrap metal was opened about one year ago. Before its inauguration, refugees worked in other factories and industries but the income they received was low and working conditions were appalling. According to Moer, an Arab from Omdruman, working in the dump was better that serving under Egyptians because ‘here one is free and not bothered by Egyptians.’ He claimed that working in a factory under Egyptians was hard and risky. For example, he narrated that a Southern Sudanese was badly injured on his leg by a piece of metal intentionally which an Egyptian threw at him.
The dump was virtually exhausted of metal pieces and consequently only a few people continued to work at it. Keitkei told us that most of the refugees relocated to a new dump. Two refugees on bicycles headed to the new location. Secured with ropes on their bicycles were bags containing tools, water and food. The desert weather and strenuous work demanded frequent intake of water and as there is no water nearby, the refugees carried their supplies from home.
The Exhausted Dump
It is hard for foreigners to gain access to the refugees in the dump. The Egyptian guards posted at the dump allowed in only Sudanese and few Egyptians. These refugees are toiling in the desert heat, under dangerous health condition, out of sight of the world. Only people who look like the refugees can access the dump. We relied on Keitkei, who also worked in the dump, to explain the purpose of our visit and solicit the cooperation of refugees, who were predominantly Fur. Keitkei explained that Egyptians were not allowed to work in the dump because of its potential danger to health. Few Egyptians were working far away from the areas where the Sudanese worked.
One of the respondents in the dump was a successful government official in Darfur. Keitkei explained to him that the two Sudanese visitors came to study the problems Sudanese faced. He agreed to explain the traumatic experiences he had encountered since leaving Sudan. His wife died, leaving behind three children. He worked in the dump to raise money to support them. His whole life was devastated. He came from Sudan few months back and was registered by the UNHCR which provided him with temporary protection without any humanitarian assistance. The failure of UNHCR to assist him upset him much. The same situation applies to all Darfurians who came to Cairo after December 2003- a date when UNHCR stopped refugee status determination for Sudanese including Darfurians. Instead, UHCR officials cynically embarked on preaching refugees to return. One of us who attended two such meetings in spring 2004 told them it was premature to talk to refugees about return.
Three of the refugees we interviewed allowed us to photograph them in the dump. They all completed university and came to Cairo within the past year. They lost touch with their family members in Darfur. The men were very worried for their health but would not stop working in the dump because their survival depended on it.
Refugees Lost Contacts with Relatives in Darfur
Respondents from Darfur blamed the UNHCR for their current difficulties and wondered why it talked to them about return to Sudan when their people were being killed in Darfur. Similarly, a participant from Nuba Mountains was very upset by the failure of the UNHCR to support refugees. Some of them had taken part in the demonstration at the UNHCR with the expectation that it would produce some positive response from the distant and uncaring UNHCR.
Base on the evidence we provided in this study, it is impossible that Sudanese refugees be integrated in Egypt. Our study also concludes that it is premature to talk to refugees about return until it becomes certain that sustainable peace has reached every corner of Sudan. We therefore suggest the followings as temporary solutions for Sudanese refugees in Egypt:
1) Sudanese refugees be willingly temporarily settled in one or two camps at fringes of Greater Cairo as it will draw the attention of organizations that are willing to help and facilitated their out reach. This will also help refugees run their own affairs and will again generate services to them. Refugees, who are physicians, nurses, teachers, etc., can be locally employed in the cam with the help from international and national NGOs instead of gradually forgetting their professions.
2) Money be to help refugees establish small businesses such as basket weaving, table cloth and bed sheet decorating, carpentry, etc., for exportation to countries where such products are marketable.
3) Refugees from indigenous Darfurian origin be all recognized as conventional refugees since they are the target of the government security almost everywhere in the country. We strong evidence that government security men have, since March 2005, gunned down more than 100 indigenous individuals in different cities of Darfur and raped hundreds of women at gun point.
4) Names of Darfur refugees be listed and suggested to countries willing to accept them for resettlement. Darfur associations in the Diaspora can play important role in this regard.
*Leben Nelson Moro is a D.Phil. candidate at University of Oxford, UK.
**Gamal Adam is a PhD candidate at York University, Canada.