Sudanese refugees frustrated by hardships in Egypt dream of being resettled, but there are few slots for thousands of refugees.
CAIRO: Sudanese refugees who escaped from the bloody conflict in Darfur say that anything is better than the atrocities in their country. But as they find a safe haven in Egypt, they end up unemployed and frustrated, dependent on the good will of family and friends, and yearning for greener pastures abroad. But resettlement is not a right, and though many dream of this, it is an unlikely outcome.
“If I was them, I would want to get resettled but the law would not be on my side, says human rights lawyer Mike Kagan. “No refugee in Egypt has a right to go to Canada and [the] U.S. In Egypt, at most they have their basic rights; they have social and economic rights.
However, the Egyptian government has failed to grant wide access to social services, education and legal employment for Sudanese refugees, despite signing an agreement with Sudan that allows freedom in work, movement, residence and ownership between the two countries. The death of more than 20 Sudanese protesters in a police raid in Mustafa Mahmoud square last December and the subsequent arrest of more than 600 of them raised doubts as to whether refugees are indeed protected in Egypt.
“The Sudanese refugees have fallen in a crack in the law. Many countries don’t live to fulfill [their] obligations to let refugees lead a dignified and secure life. But they don’t have a right to another country, says Kagan.
Hasheem Muhammad Abdullah, 26, lost his house and farm animals in Darfur; his whole village was burned and he has no idea where his parents, nine brothers and three sisters are. He came to Egypt in 2005 and has been granted asylum seeker status by the UNHCR. But he feels stuck, relying on his brother in Canada for a monthly allowance.
“I tried to find [a] job, but it’s hard to work with Egyptians, he says. He is adamant on going to another country. I will not stay in Cairo, I will never go back to Darfur, he says. In Darfur, there is dead every day, every minute. UN office does not help me.
According to Tarek Badawy, programs director for African and Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA), Egypt used to host one of the biggest resettlement programs in the world. Until 2005, it was a transfer point for refugees who stayed briefly then successfully resettled to Western countries like Australia, Canada or the U.S.
“This represented a pull factor, and many people came to Egypt regardless of whether they were genuine refugees, says Badawy. In 2003, the UNHCR widened its definition for refugees by using the African Union Convention criteria, further increasing the refugee flow in Egypt, with most of them expecting resettlement.
UNHCR’s Regional Representative in Cairo, Saad El Atar, says in that “Resettlement is accessible to a small number of refugees during the year. In 2004, of the some 9.2 million refugees worldwide, some 84,600 persons were accepted for resettlement. In Egypt, only 1,300 refugees departed with UNHCR resistance, a tiny percentage of the more than 50,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt (AMERA estimates).
Legal counsel in AMERA, Tarek Mahrous, explains that UNHCR imposes a very strict criteria for resettlement, met usually by persons who are either under threat of persecution, survivors of violence, in need of medical treatment, or unable to assimilate culturally or religiously. Unless these criteria are met, UNHCR recommends voluntary repatriation or local integration. With the 2005 peace agreement ending the 21-year conflict in south Sudan, UNHCR placed more emphasis on voluntary repatriation for Sudanese refugees.
Meeting a dead end with UNHCR, some refugees seek humanitarian visas to other countries on their own. Osama Il Dein escaped from Darfur after he was charged of conspiring with rebels. Guards tortured him inside the prison and he still bears burn marks on his shoulder. He arrived in Egypt one and a half years ago. Since then, he had successfully applied for an Australian visa, thanks to the sponsorship of a Sudanese friend in Sydney. He is set to leave after one month, and is the envy of his fellow Sudanese refugees.
“I feel lucky, and all I have to do is wait, says Osama. Once he settles down in Australia, he will work to petition his wife and six-month old baby. He is hoping to find a job as a truck driver, but he is willing to accept anything.
“Here you can work for 12 hours a day, and it’s still not enough for food, transportation and your other needs. Luckily, an uncle in Saudi Arabia sends $200 a month to help with Osama’s expenses.
Such is the means of survival among many Sudanese refugees in Egypt. While they wait for an opportunity to earn a living or migrate abroad, relatives who are ahead in the journey lend some support. It builds dependency and, many times, complacence among Sudanese. They end up being picky with jobs, and prefer to spend the day in a coffee shop or an internet café.
Other Sudanese have given up on migrating and on surviving in Egypt, but have not given up on Sudan. Ahmed Yousef, 28, is going home in a few weeks. Like Il Dein, he was also branded as a rebel sympathizer in Darfur. Arriving in 2004, he found a job as a waiter in a Nuweba resort, only to lose it when the Sharm El-Sheikh and Dahab bombings brought down tourism in Sinai. He moved to Ein Shams, and joined the thousands of unemployed Sudanese in the streets.
Even if I find a job in Cairo, I will not stay, he says. “Any problem in your country is still better than a problem in another country. It s the best of the bad.
It s not only the lack of job prospects that they complain about. Here, they treat us like slaves because we are black, says Bakry Yousef Mohamad. Sudanese believe that everything bad happening in Sudan is from Egyptian intelligence. Some believe that the janjaweed [militias in Darfur] get their training in Egypt.
Despite their woes, many Sudanese still find Egypt a tolerable middle ground. It may not be the land of milk and honey, but as Bakry himself admits, Here we can find friends among fellow Sudanese, a good place to stay and our family will send us money.
Bakry is doing well, having found a job as a trainer for a computer school, but like the rest he hopes Egypt is just a stopover en route to Europe, America or even the Gulf.
Egypt is not the only country where refugees are in limbo. Iraqis in Turkey, Burmese in Thailand and Somalis in Kenya also find it difficult to attain social and economic well-being and clamor for resettlement. Unfortunately, refugee numbers are increasing while so few countries are willing to give them substantial refuge.