UNHCR office temporarily halts operations

The Cairo office of the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, closed indefinitely on Sunday, bringing its operations relating to asylum applicants to a halt following a mass sit-in by Sudanese asylum seekers and refugees.

Some 3,000 Sudanese, who have now been camped a mere 200 metres away from UNHCR premises for two months, also declared a hunger strike.

Some of the Sudanese are demanding refugee status in Egypt, while others, already considered refugees, insist on immigration visas to Europe and North America.

UNHCR staff, meanwhile, has been scaled back due to security concerns.

“We’re playing it by ear,” said UNHCR public relations officer Amina Korey. “By the end of the day, we should know whether things will go back to normal tomorrow or not.”

A UNHCR official who preferred anonymity told IRIN, “I doubt we’ll reopen until the protesters evacuate.”

According to Korey, the UNHCR was forced to suspend all Sudanese asylum seeker applications in early October because of disruptions caused by the sit-in.

Between January and October, the agency had dealt only with emergency cases. In late September, protesters delivered a set of 17 demands to UNHCR, including the reopening of the files of some 20,000 claimants waiting for refugee status.

Failed negotiations

On 17 November, officials from the Egyptian Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior, along with UNHCR management, “had extensive discussions with the organisers of the demonstration,” according to a UNHCR press statement.

The UNHCR and the Egyptian government presented a joint proposal to the protest organisers, including a pledge to provide emergency assistance and housing to those who have lost their homes over the course of the protest. The proposal also offered aid to those wishing to resettle in southern Sudan.

While protesters had been expected to reciprocate by calling off their demonstration by noon on Sunday, the situation deteriorated instead.

“By noon today, the numbers of Sudanese had swelled to 3,000, ” Korey said. “And they seemed agitated.”

Sudanese asylum seeker Amir Khaled said: “Until our demands are met, we will not relent. We would rather die here than face the conditions the UNHCR is imposing by closing its doors to us.”

“If the UNHCR fails to respond, we will steadily increase our number of hunger strikers,” he added.

Long wait for asylum

Many of the protestors have been in Egypt since the mid-1990s, when they fled Sudan to escape a ruinous civil war between the Khartoum-based government and the Southern People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A).

Out of an estimated 90,000 refugees currently living in Egypt, some 20,000 are Sudanese or Somali.

“It’s unfair for someone who’s been here since 1996 to suddenly be told that there’s no hope to start a new life abroad,” said Julie, (not her real name) from southern Sudan. Although she has refugee status in Egypt, Julie, like many of her peers, did not qualify for resettlement in Europe or North America.

“Many of us have been here for years, waiting for a way out, and now we’re stuck. We don’t want to stay here, nor do we believe the situation in Sudan will improve,” she said.

She went on to explain that Sudanese resident in Egypt often face discrimination.

“You can walk on the street, minding your own business, when someone will suddenly swear at you or beat you for no reason,” she said.

In January, the Sudanese government and the SPLM/A signed a comprehensive peace agreement, ostensibly bringing peace to southern Sudan, ravaged by two decades of civil war.

Following the accord, UNHCR suspended refugee status determination for Sudanese asylum applications, while saying it would support the voluntary repatriation of refugees from the south by pledging $250 to every family choosing to return.

According to the refugee agency, all other asylum applications –both new and pending – have been closed since the suspension.

“There is no longer a war in Sudan,” explained Korey, “so there is no plausible reason to believe that there are real dangers facing the Sudanese, especially those who come from the south.”

Egypt is a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the status of refugees, as well as the 1969 Organization of African Union convention, which governs specific aspects of Africa’s refugee problems.

As a provisional measure, following the peace agreement in Sudan, asylum seekers in Egypt were granted temporary resident permits, renewable every six months, ensuring they wouldn’t be deported by the Egyptian government.

Cairo, meanwhile, claims that Sudanese refugees enjoy a degree of protection under the June 2004 “Four Freedoms Agreement,” which grants both Sudanese and Egyptians the freedom of movement, residence, ownership and work in either country.

Korey also pointed out that Sudanese in Egypt qualify for 80-percent discounts on fees at local universities.

Nevertheless, several protesters complained to IRIN that they had been denied work permits by the Egyptian authorities, while others grumbled about the lack of job opportunities available in Egypt.

Twenty-three percent of the Egyptian population lives under the poverty line of $2 per day, according to the World Bank. Unemployment, meanwhile, is roughly estimated at between 15 percent and 20 percent of the national workforce.

Nothing to go home to

Sudanese protestors, meanwhile, say they believe the future of southern Sudan, despite the recent agreement, remains uncertain.

“What the UNHCR fails to understand is that peace isn’t just about the agreement,” said Khaled. “There are more factions involved than just the government and the SPLM/A.”

Gamal Nkrumah, a journalist and specialist in African affairs, noted that, while the January peace accord may have officially ended the war, southern Sudan continues to lack even the most basic infrastructure.

“Consider that southern Sudan, which is where most Sudanese in Egypt originate, covers an area as large as France, Germany and Italy put together, and there isn’t a single tarred road there,” he said.

According to one humanitarian worker based in southern Sudan, the humanitarian situation remains disastrous. “On the surface, there may be peace, but there are no hospitals, no schools and no services for the population,”she noted. “There’s also no protection or accountable security for the people.”

Tough life in Egypt

Meanwhile, most Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers complain that life in Egypt isn’t what they expected, and hope to move on to first-world refuges in Europe and North America.

According to aid workers, many of them end up with the least desirable jobs and live in poor conditions.

“We fled Sudan thinking we would find safety under the protection of the UN and international law,” Julie said. “But the truth is, life isn’t much better for us now than it was in Sudan.”

Korey noted, however, that complaints raised by the Sudanese – about unemployment, poor educational opportunities and discrimination – were not specific to refugees alone, but were faced as well by poorer sections of Egyptian society.

“The problems faces by Sudanese refugees aren’t all that different to those faced by less fortunate sectors of the Egyptian population,” she said.

Some experts also point out that many Sudanese refugees come to Egypt with the expectation that they will then be able to migrate to the richer countries of North America, Europe or Australia.

“For most Sudanese, Egypt is merely considered a stop-over point,” said Nkrumah.

Korey, however, insisted that, contrary to what many of the protesters think, “Resettlement isn’t a right.”

She added, “It’s only granted when it presents a durable solution to a given refugee whose status has already been recognised.”

But as the winter sets in, the protestors’ situation is sure to worsen.

According to Maha Bakry of Sudia, an NGO devoted to helping Sudanese refugees, seven protestors have already died during the mass sit-in due to poor health.

Nevertheless, hunger strikers remain adamant.

“There’s nothing I can do any more – this hunger strike is a last resort,” said 22-year-old Joseph, who has been in Egypt awaiting refugee status for two years.