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Future Remains Uncertain For Sudanese Refugees in Egypt - 2003-06-19

Sudan's civil war, Africa's longest, has led to the deaths of an estimated two million people. It has created millions of refugees, the vast majority of them from the south, where most of the fighting between the government and southern-based rebels is taking place. Refugees have fled to all the neighboring countries, including Egypt.

The southern Sudanese make up Egypt's largest refugee population, numbering 30,000-40,000.

Since there are no refugee camps to receive the Sudanese at the Egyptian border, they usually travel on to Cairo, where some find solace in worship at All Saint's Episcopal Cathedral.

In addition to offering religious consolation, the cathedral has a program called Refuge Egypt that provides Sudanese and other refugees with medical care, food and clothing.

Refuge Egypt head Nabil Marcos says Southern Sudanese find it difficult to cope in Cairo's bustling metropolis of 17 million. They come from a very rural society, he says, and are overwhelmed.

"The refugees, asylum-seekers have nowhere to go," he explained. "They are in a very vulnerable, critical position. UNHCR [the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees] doesn't help them, the government doesn't help them. At most, it is tolerant of their presence here. They are not living in refugee camps. They are urban refugees."

Not all Sudanese qualify for refugee status, meaning they are beyond the reach of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

But the refugee agency says it is trying, where possible, to help. A senior official with the UNHCR, Karim Atassi, says the agency is recognizing more Sudanese as bona fide refugees. Some 11,000 people are registered and the number is rising.

But Mr. Atassi says it is difficult at times to distinguish between those Sudanese who really have fled persecution and others who are economic migrants.

"This population is mixed in Cairo," said Mr. Atassi. "They are living together; they are sharing the same apartments. When we recognize one and reject the other, it is sometimes very difficult [for them] to understand."

Securing U.N. recognition guarantees refugees protection and possible resettlement in another country. But that process can take anywhere from six months to two years, or longer. And not all Sudanese in the end are granted this status. Among those waiting for U.N. recognition is Michael Loki. Life for him and the other asylum-seekers, he says, is filled with uncertainty.

"Living in Egypt, you have to rent a house, an apartment to live in," he said. "You have to pay for a phone, electricity. You have to pay for water. While we are waiting, we work any type of work. Most of them are cleaning houses. Even though you are qualified, you find no job. You can't live, and you can't afford to live."

Mr. Loki says the Sudanese, since they are considered foreigners, have to pay higher rates for housing. That means that several families must live together under one roof, in order to afford the rent. He says they also have to pay higher rates to attend Egyptian schools, again because they are foreigners. However, in many cases, they are not even allowed into the schools. Consequently, thousands of Sudanese children in Egypt are not receiving an education.

Mr. Loki also says Egyptian authorities have begun taking a tougher line toward Sudanese and other Africans, because they are concerned that they will further burden an already bad economy.

But Barbara Harrell-Bond, who teaches refugee studies at the American University in Cairo, dismisses the belief that refugees burden an economy. She argues that contrary to depleting economic resources, research shows that the refugees are actually a boost to Egypt's economy.

"It is estimated that a family of five needs over $5,000 a year to live in Egypt," she said. "So every refugee then becomes a consumer immediately. And they are drawing money, not just working in the informal economy, but they are also getting remittances from abroad. So, a lot of money is coming into Egypt because of refugees, and it is being spent here."

Social worker Liza Hazelton says the challenges confronting the Sudanese are simply too much to bear for many of them. They experience depression and nightmares from the trauma they have escaped. To ease the emotional pain they are suffering, Ms. Hazelton says, some of the Sudanese resort to alcohol and illegal drugs.

"They are living in very crowded conditions, and conditions they are not used to, which exacerbates all their feelings of disconnection and just not knowing who they are anymore, and how to manage, how to cope," she said. "Some people are extremely angry and they cause problems in the community."

Officials at the U.N. refugee agency, as well as those connected with private groups like Refuge Egypt, say the best hope for the Sudanese in Egypt is that Sudan's government and rebels will stop fighting and sign a peace agreement.

Aid officials say prospects for peace look better than they have in years. The two sides are due to meet again in August for discussions that could lead to an accord on the creation of an interim government, in which power would be shared between the rebels in the south and the government in the north. But they say, even that may not put an end to Africa's longest-running war.