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Sudanese Refugees Face Hardship in Egypt

A little over a week ago, Egyptian police stormed a makeshift refugee camp in an upscale Cairo neighborhood, killing at least 27 Sudanese migrants, including women and children. The refugees had been camped in the square for weeks to demand resettlement in third countries. The tragic events have focused international media attention on the plight of Sudanese refugees in Egypt. But it is hardly new.

A few hours before dawn on the morning of December 30, Musa ibn Musa's wife was beaten to death. She did not die right away, in the public square where police stormed a protest camp. She died later, after they had both been taken away to a detention center.

Musa ibn Musa said that his wife had a head injury and a broken rib and that her rib caused internal bleeding, causing her bleed to death.

Musa says 12 other people also died in that detention center, having received no medical treatment for the injuries they received when police brutally ended their three-month protest outside the Cairo office of the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, in the wealthy neighborhood of Mohandisseen.

Now, Musa has lost his wife and most of his worldly possessions. He is jobless and homeless, staying with a different friend every night. His two small children are staying with other friends, because he cannot care for them himself.

"What should I do?" he asked. "I came here five years ago, I have my documents, and I have applied for refugee status. I am going to have to leave it up to God."

Musa spoke to VOA on the sidewalk outside the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic church in Cairo's Sakakini neighborhood. Sacred Heart has long been a focal point of the Sudanese community in Egypt, and it is often the first stop for newly arriving refugees. It is also the first place many people went when they were released from detention after the tragedy in Mohandisseen.

"At least as far as we were concerned, there were two main needs we had to focus on," said Father Achilles Kasozi, a priest at Sacred Heart. "First of all, there were some people who were wounded. We had to rush them to hospital for medical assistance. And then, we had so many people who had nowhere to go, because they had left their apartments or homes three months ago, and they had nowhere to go."

There are believed to be between 20,000 and 30,000 Sudanese refugees and asylum-seekers living in Egypt. The brutal deaths in Mohandisseen have focused international attention on their plight, but there was nothing new about the situation that drove the Sudanese to set up their protest camp outside the UNHCR office three months ago.

Father Achilles wishes people had paid attention to the plight of the refugees much earlier, and says he finds the sudden interest distateful.

"It's that that I found very unfortunate," he noted. "I say probably something could have been done before that. I say this exodus could have been, probably a solution would have been found, that not all of these people would have been found in such squalid conditions. And I find that there is something immoral about the interest that was picked up after the tragedy in Mohandisseen. We've had Sudanese refugees here for more than 15 years, and the war in Sudan has been going on for more than 20 years."

The refugees in Mohandisseen set up their camp because they wanted the UNHCR to resettle them in Europe or North America. UNHCR said that was impossible.

Many Sudanese say they have faced discrimination in Egypt. They receive little financial support. As refugees here, they generally cannot get work permits either. Egypt's overall unemployment rate is around 25 percent, meaning there would be few jobs for them, even if they did have the right to work.

A woman named Martha says she cleans homes to earn a meager living for herself, her husband and their four-year-old son.

"There is nothing done for us, no help, nothing," she said. "We are living in bad conditions here. We work sometimes in houses of Egyptians, and they treat us badly. Sometimes, at the end of the month they tell us to leave, and refuse to pay our salary. I need the money. I cannot pay for my apartment."

Martha's husband stayed in the camp in Mohandisseen, but she stayed away out of concern for her son. She says he often has to stay home alone while she works. Her son is too young for school, but, even if he were older, Sudanese refugees can have trouble getting their children into the Egyptian school system.

Sacred Heart and several other churches run schools especially for Sudanese migrants, and a few churches also operate clinics for basic medical care.

Father Achilles says the protest camp in Mohandisseen is a symptom of the underlying problems in meeting the refugees' basic needs.

"As long as there are these problems down there, the problem that happened in Mohandisseen can happen again," he added. "I would not like to see it happening again, but I'm afraid it can happen again."

Now that the war in southern Sudan is technically over, the United Nations is trying to repatriate refugees who have been living abroad. The first small group went home from Kenya last month, and UNHCR hopes to bring 60,000 refugees back to Sudan by May.

But a few armed groups in the south did not sign onto the peace deal, and another brutal war is still raging in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

Musa, who comes from central Sudan, says he is not at all comfortable with the idea of returning home.

"The situation is still very tense in Sudan," he said. "There is no peace at all yet. There is still war. It is still tense." Then he said, "We cannot talk about peace in Sudan yet."

Some of the refugees who were detained in Mohandisseen may be repatriated much sooner than the United Nations had wanted. About 650 of them are still in detention and in danger of deportation, because they have no documents to prove who they are, or that they qualify for refugee status. Many of them lost those documents when police stormed the camp.

The UNHCR is interviewing them in an effort to establish their identities. Egypt has given the UN agency until Saturday to assess their legal status, and determine whether they have the right to stay.