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Study: Ignorance, Uncertainty Fueled Refugee Protest in Egypt

The Forced Migration and Refugee Studies department at The American University in Cairo has found that a number of factors led to the three-month Sudanese refugee protest in Cairo. Interest in the research, which will be released at the end of the month, has grown since last December's brutal arrest and detainment of the refugees protesting decisions made by the U.N. resettlement office.

Students and researchers from The American University in Cairo were already investigating the living conditions of refugees in an urban setting like Cairo when police stormed the Sudanese protest camp in Moustafa Mahmoud Square.

In the early hours of December 30, riot police surrounded at least 2,000 protesters in an attempt to load them onto buses headed for detainment centers. When the protesters resisted, police doused them with water cannons and beat them with batons.

Families were separated and 27 refugees were killed. More refugees are reported to have died in detainment centers due to a lack of medical attention.

The police raid gave the university research study a new sense of urgency. The university's Forced Migration and Refugee Studies department reacted by sending teams of researchers to focus on interviewing Sudanese refugees.

Their findings take into account the history of migration and cooperation between Sudan and Egypt. Program director Fateh Azzam said between two million to four million people from Sudan are living in Egypt, many of them since the 1960s and 1970s, but it is nearly impossible for them to fully integrate as Egyptians.

"There has always been a historic relationship with Egypt," said Mr. Azzam. "They have come here, they have married Egyptians and vice-versa. You know, and they work, they have businesses, they are professors in universities, including here at AUC. Egypt has been very hospitable as a host country in many ways, for Sudanese generally, because of the historic relationship, but also for the refugees - not only Sudanese refugees. But the possibility of real integration and acquisition of citizenship, and that sort of, becoming Egyptian, are very, very slim. It is not easy to get Egyptian citizenship. It is extremely difficult."

The number of refugees entering Egypt depends largely on the degree of political strife in neighboring Sudan.

The more powerful northern Sudan, dominated by Muslims, signed a peace treaty with the largely Christian and animist south, ending a civil war that lasted for more than 10 years. But some fighting remains in the south, and in 2003 a new conflict arose in the western region of Darfur.

The protesters who camped for three months in Cairo's Moustafa Mahmoud square came from across Sudan to see the regional U.N. resettlement office, hoping to go to countries like Australia, Canada and America.

But the UNHCR stopped the Sudanese resettlement process after the north-south Sudan peace treaty was signed. The assistant regional UNHCR representative Damtew Dessalegne said the decision was in the refugees' best interest.

"[The] situation was changing in Sudan, particularly in South Sudan," said Mr. Dessalegne. "Positive developments. Therefore, not every thousand Sudanese coming to Egypt may make a protection case, if you like, because of the positive developments. On the other hand, an opposite development in Western Sudan, in Darfur. There is no need for us, for UNHCR, to interview a Darfurian for two, three hours in order to find out why that person fled Sudan. It was obvious, it was clear from objective facts we had. Therefore, why not automatically issue the persons protection through a residence permit issued by the authorities, without interview. That was the rationale. So it was in the best interest of the individuals themselves that we temporarily suspend refugee-status determination."

The university's research shows that UNHCR's suspension of interviews ultimately let to the three-month protest, said Azzam. He said residence permits have to be renewed every six months, meaning refugees always feel they are in limbo.

But Fateh Azzam said that other factors, like ignorance, also led to the unrest:

"What we found is, in fact, in this research is that there is a serious lack of information. People do not know how to access services, whether it is healthcare or education or any other," added Fateh Azzam. "People are very unclear about what they have the right to access and what they do not have the right to access. There are a lot of assumptions and many of it, it is on the part of the Sudanese refugee community themselves about, you know, 'No, you cannot go and get education there, because that is only for Christians,' or 'That is only for Muslims.' Or you know, 'Because the service is provided at a church, I as a Muslim Sudanese am not supposed to go there.' You know, rumors of that sort and misinformation of that sort. And there is really no place, and that is, I think, it is a failure on the part of UNHCR, in terms of actually providing very clear information for asylum seekers and refugees about what they can access to make their lives somewhat easier and manageable while they are waiting for what happens in the future."

Azzam said refugees also complain about discrimination and racist comments they encounter on the street. Some hostility may be attributed to Egyptians in the informal sector who compete with the Sudanese refugees for work.

But Azzam said there is also a reverse racism to consider. Many Sudanese do not want their kids learning Arabic in Egyptian schools, and they would rather fight for resettlement in countries like Australia than try to integrate with Egyptian society. He said many of the refugees end up marginalizing themselves.

After the police raid, UNHCR worked to gain the release of the more than 600 protesters who remained in detention. Dessalegne said the final group of detainees was released on February 12.

Meanwhile, the U.N. office has been tackling an enormous backlog of refugees from Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. Once the Sudanese protesters were removed from Moustafa Mahmoud Square, once all their belongings were cleared and new trees were planted, these other refugees began gathering daily in the same spot to demand services. In the first two weeks, Dessalegne said as many as 500 refugees gathered there per day.

Azzam said the backlog can be attributed to UNHCR closing its office during the three-month Sudanese protest. But Dessalegne denies that UNHCR closed its office, saying they only reduced services. He blames the protesters for obstructing access to the office, although the office can be accessed by multiple routes.

"There is a mix of factors," said Damtew Dessalegne. "Some, yes, especially the Sudanese, there was intimidation, because those in the park wanted their Sudanese fellow nationals to join the protest and not to deal with UNHCR. Other nationalities, it is just a logistical problem that prevented them from coming to UNHCR. Some others thought that UNHCR is simply not operating, dealing only with the protest and not with any other issue. So it was for a number of reasons people were not coming to UNHCR or were not able to access UNHCR."

Dessalegne said the Egyptian government could be doing more to aid refugees. He said Egypt is a state partner in a 1951 refugee convention that assures refugees more rights than the right to remain. Yet, the unstated policy in Egypt, he said, is that their stay in the country is temporary, because of overpopulation and a lack of resources.

Azzam said that since most Sudanese refugees are not prepared to go back to Sudan, and since they cannot be resettled, the message they are getting is that they will have to stay for the indefinite future, trying to survive in a place where they are not welcome.