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Sudan refugees on hunger strike

11/17/2005 7:07pm

By Ranyah Sabry
BBC News, Cairo

Some 4,000 increasingly desperate Sudanese refugees and failed asylum seekers who have been camped outside the United Nations refugee agency headquarters in Egypt's capital for a month and a half have gone on hunger strike.

"Even if one of my children dies, we are not moving until our case is solved," exclaims Mona, a mother of three.

She has been crammed with the other protesters into the small garden facing the UNHCR's Cairo office for the last 47 days.

Sitting on blankets in the open-air, there is neither potable water nor bathrooms and the only protection the demonstrators have against the autumn winds are their banners hung around the garden calling on the UNHCR to resolve their refugee status.

Since their continuous sit-in began, seven demonstrators have died, three babies have been born and four women have had miscarriages.

Persecution fears

The catalyst for the demonstration came after the UNCHR stopped aid to those who had applied and failed to get refugee status.

We are staying here until the UNHCR takes us out of Egypt or we die
Male protester

The agency says it can only provide regular financial assistance to those extremely vulnerable groups among the needy refugees as its assistance programme has come under tremendous pressure in recent years.

While not all the demonstrators have the same demands - some wanting aid and others resettlement to another country - most do not want to go back to Sudan despite the signing of a peace accord in January ending the 21-year civil war.

Some think is not safe enough yet to return home and others believe that if they go back they will be executed for treason.

Many of those at the sit-in want to leave Egypt altogether, saying they face harassment here.

"Most of us were smuggled into Egypt escaping the war. We are harassed by the Egyptians even on public transport. They do not want us here," Nizar says.

An Egyptian volunteer at the garden camp site explains that with unemployment at 25%, local people and refugees are often competing for jobs, which makes the situation difficult for all parties.

Sit-ins banned

Under international law, failed asylum seekers could face deportation by the Egyptian authorities.

So far, the Egyptian security forces have stayed out of the conflict, although such demonstrations and sit-ins are prohibited by emergency laws.

Some of the protesters, who use suitcases to mark out their family groupings and tree branches as hangers, have taken heart from this restraint.

"Before, numerous Sudanese refugees have been arrested without any indictment or trial," Bahreddin says.

The UNHCR has expressed its concern for the many vulnerable people sitting in the park, but says its hands are tied as it is unable to change policies on what determines refugee status and resettlement assistance.

I am proud he was born here. His father and I will sit here until we guarantee him a better future
A woman who has given birth during the sit-in

"I think that what will happen is very much up to them [the demonstrators]. We have been trying hard to work with them to make clear what we can and cannot do in terms of their concerns," says the UNHCR's Layla Jane Nassif in Cairo, adding that it is not always clear whether all those camped out were Sudanese or other opportunists.

"We have also been clear making the demonstrators aware of the difficulties that may be faced in the coming days should the patience of the Egyptian government run out," she says.

'Eating beans'

Despite these words of warning, the protesters are determined to continue.

"We are staying here until the UNHCR takes us out of Egypt or we die. The hunger strike will make us just go faster," says a Sudanese man, demanding resettlement.

Meanwhile, those refugees who are receiving some UN support complain that it is inadequate.

"The UNHCR offers an integration programme but with no houses, no education, no work. We have been eating beans for weeks!" says 40-year-old Napoleon.

Last week, he risked his life by jumping over security guards to reach the car of Kofi Annan, who was visiting Cairo at the time.

He handed over a letter to the UN boss asking to be resettled in a Western country.

"It is our right under the 1951 Geneva Convention to seek asylum in a country that can afford to host us," he says.

Napoleon's wife is one of the women to have given birth during the sit-in.

"I have not bathed him with water since he was born," she says about her third-born.

"I just rub his body with oil. But I am proud he was born here. His father and I will sit here until we guarantee him a better future."

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