Two years ago on September 25th a small group of Sudanese refugees began a peaceful protest against the policy of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ Cairo office. Within days their numbers had swelled to over 3,000 men, women and children who lived in Mohandiseen’s Mostafa Mahmoud Square for 3 months.
In the early hours of Sunday 30th December 4,000 Egyptian riot police formed a cordon round the protestors preventing anyone from leaving before charging the camp. By 6 a.m. nearly 30 people had been killed – of which half were children – and hundreds injured.
According to the oracle, Fartbook, there will be a candlelit vigil on the 31st December at 6 p.m. in Mostafa Mahmoud Square in memory of those who died. See you there, and in the meantime here’s a piece I wrote about the 2005 massacre:
Two years later, Sudanese refugees are between a rock and a hard place
High on a hill over an hour away from the Cairene suburb of Mohandiseen, and ten minutes from the gilded pleasures of the City Stars mall is Kilo Arbaa we Noss.
Both literally and metaphorically on Cairo’s margins, Kilo Arbaa we Noss is another of the city’s impoverished, informal housing areas. A steep slope covered in rubbish through which women and children sift forms the entrance to the area. The people who pass the bent over figures climb up carefully on the side of a stream of unidentifiable liquid which has turned the path into a turgid swamp.
The labyrinthine, unmade, and unnamed streets, and the crude buildings which line them are home to the very poorest of Cairo’s residents, including a large number of Sudanese refugees drawn to the area both by the low rent, and the Sudanese community already established here.
I have come to Arbaa we Noss because two years ago, in the early hours of 30th December 2005 nearly thirty Sudanese people taking part in a peaceful protest were killed in the middle of Cairo. Hosed with water cannon, beaten to death, asphyxiated in the crush of people trying to escape police batons while, underfoot, children placed under plastic sheeting to protect them from the water canon suffocated or were crushed in the mayhem. In the middle of Cairo and in the shadow of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees’ (UNHCR) Cairo office nearly thirty people lost their lives and hundreds more were injured – the victims of violence, poverty, racism and neglect. I have come to Arbaa we Noss because I want to know what, two years later, has changed.
Tawfiq and Naama (names have been changed) have two girls, the oldest is two and a half years old, the baby 6 months. The family live in two rooms on the 6th floor of a building in Arbaa we Noss reached by a perilously uneven staircase. The progress is slow, Tawfiq’s eldest daughter navigating her way up the steps with difficulty.
Tawfiq and his wife came to Egypt in 2004 fleeing persecution in Sudan but, Tawfiq told me, the reality of life in Egypt is in many ways worse than what they left behind. On arriving in Cairo he registered with UNHCR, and was given the yellow card now automatically handed out to all Sudanese refugees since the UNHCR suspended individual interviews for Sudanese nationals in June 2004 (after the ceasefire between the Sudanese government and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army). Yellow cards – which offer temporary protection – are given to asylum-seekers, blue cards to individuals recognised as refugees. It is only blue card holders who may be considered for resettlement abroad in for example Canada or Australia.
Three years after registering with them Tawfiq has heard nothing about his case from UNHCR, and in the meantime has had to navigate his own way through what is often, a merciless city.
Education and employment
“It’s my children that I worry about the most. My oldest knows nothing – if you gave her a pen she wouldn’t know what to do with it. Our children are sent to these nurseries and come out at seven years old not knowing how to write, because there’s real neglect in these places, children are just left to sit there for hours. And in any case, a lot of these nurseries are church-funded, which means that the children are taught about Christianity and taught hymns – which is a problem for Muslim parents like us who would like our children to learn about our religion.”
While a 1992 ministerial decree affords refugee children the right to attend Egyptian schools, in practice overcrowding in public schools and bureaucratic obstacles prevent Sudanese children from exercising this right. Costly private education is out of reach of most refugees, which leaves Sudanese parents with no option but to send their children to charity-funded institutions which, even if they do provide a semblance of an education, do not award nationally- or internationally-recognised qualifications which will allow access to higher education.
The problem is compounded by the dismal employment prospects for Sudanese refugees in Egypt who are forced into the informal sector; Egyptian law requires that employers wishing to employ foreigners must secure a work permit. Amongst other conditions, the work permit will only be granted if an Egyptian cannot fill the post – an impossible condition to fill in a country suffering from huge levels of unemployment.
“There’s no work in the country for anyone, Egyptians or foreigners, but somehow it’s worse for Sudanese people because when we do find work we are always paid less than Egyptians,” Tawfiq told me. “We work as cleaners or delivery men or as security guards working 15-hour days in jobs that never last while women are forced to work as cleaners in people’s homes leaving the children in the street. The average Sudanese earns no more than LE600 per month if he’s very lucky. I pay LE150 rent – how am I meant to survive?” he continued.
In the absence of their parents some Sudanese youth have turned to street gangs for companionship and protection. These gangs emulate the American rap lifestyle in the music they listen to, the clothes they wear and the inter-communal violence which, in June of this year, resulted in the death of a Sudanese teenager when a fight broke out after an AUC-organised celebration of World Refugee Day. This tragedy has itself resulted in another injustice; according to ‘Fair Trial for the AUC 8’, a website created by supporters of the eight Sudanese teenagers currently on trial for the murder, the men were detained for six months before being charged with a crime which even the victim’s mother is adamant they did not commit.
“Gangs are a normal situation in an abnormal situation,” Yassir, a Sudanese refugee who has been in Egypt since 2003 told me. “To be a black African in Egypt is hell because of the is very deep racism and hatred you face everywhere you go – in the street taxis don’t stop for us, we are racially abused by Egyptians…it never ends.”
Destitution, desperation and frustration at the perceived failure of UNHCR to protect them are what prompted twelve people to begin a protest in Mohandiseen’s Mostafa Mahmoud Park in September 2005. Over the course of three months this number steadily grew to between 3,000 to 4,000 people who transformed the park into a camp.
According to the people I spoke to the camp was well-organised with separate living quarters for men and women and guards who stopped anyone drunk from entering the camp. “I felt safe, I enjoyed being amongst my own people who all treated each other with respect,” Yassir told me.
The protestors issued a list of demands in which they expressed their fear that UNHCR would return people from the south of Sudan against their will, called for the reopening of closed files (rejected asylum applications) and urged UNHCR to resettle the most vulnerable cases abroad as soon as possible because “Sudanese refugees are faced daily with discrimination and violence and a denial of their human rights.”
In a press release UNHCR labelled the demands as “self-serving” and “allegations unsupported by any piece of evidence.”
“UNHCR’s reaction to the protestors was hostile from the very beginning,” Dr Barbara Harrell-Bond, a distinguished professor at AUC told me. “They alleged that they were of no concern to them because they were not refugees or asylum-seekers – when in fact a survey we carried out in the first two weeks revealed that over 2/3rds had yellow or blue cards.”
Negotiations between camp leaders and UNHCR produced an agreement on December 18th in which UNHCR agreed to interview yellow-card holders and give a one-off payment to protestors to help them with housing costs (many had lost their homes since joining the protest) in return for the protestors leaving the park after their cases were processed. Many of the demonstrators were suspicious about the lack of written guarantees surrounding the agreement and refused to leave the park until all cases had been processed.
On 30th December between 5 a.m. and 5.30 a.m. the protestors were forcibly removed by some 4,000 riot police who shut down roads leading to the park and formed a cordon preventing anyone from leaving. The protestors were told at 1 a.m. by the police that they were to get on buses which would take them to camps where they would be provided with shelter and food. Scared of the violence endemic in Egyptian police stations, and concerned that the buses would take them to the airport to be deported, the refugees asked that a delegation of them be taken to see the camps. Their request was refused, and further talks were interspersed with fifteen-minute rounds of water cannon fired at the protestors until the police charged the camp.
Who is to blame for what happened? Harrell-Bond is adamant that the primary responsibility lies with UNHCR: “I feel very angry that the Egyptian government got the blame. Everyone in Egypt knows that the Egyptian police are not trained to break up demonstrations peacefully and despite this, UNHCR sent three letters to the Egyptian government requesting that it end the protest.”
Both Tawfiq and Yasir feel the same way: “I blame UNHCR more than I blame the Egyptian government – UNHCR betrayed the refugee,” Yasir said.
For its part, in a report submitted to a United Nations committee in April of this year on the rights of migrant workers in Egypt, the Egyptian government says that it shelved the investigation into the events of December 30th because “the identity of the perpetrators could not be established” – not an unusual response, given that the culture of abuse which characterises the treatment of detainees by the police is rarely challenged. In the same report the Egyptian government states that deaths which occurred during the protest were caused by “asphyxiation resulting from pushing by the demonstrators who were under the influence of drugs and alcohol” and denies that any of the deaths were due to the violence employed by the police – violence testified to both by the victims’ injuries, and eyewitness accounts.
The protest – and its bloody end – received huge international media attention, but did it succeed in improving the lives of Sudanese refugees in Egypt? And what has changed since then – apart from the fact that UNHCR have moved their offices from Mohandiseen to 6th October City – which means a lengthy, time-consuming commute by unreliable microbuses for most refugees. (Harrell-Bond told me that the office was moved because “they didn’t want all these refugees spoiling Mohandiseen.”)
Mohamed, a Sudanese man who participated in the protest, thinks that things are as they were: “When I arrived Egypt I had lost my family, my country and my identity and I found that life here is in many ways just as hard. The protest didn’t change anything. UNHCR policy remains exactly the same.”
Yassir telephoned UNHCR out of desperation and anger, after a friend told him that he and his wife had been separated at the end of the protest and that he was now searching prisons for her, in vain. “They invited me to a meeting where I met with an officer. I told her, ‘you abandoned these people, you left them to die. You take these huge salaries, and for what? You do nothing!’ She started crying – she had no response,” he said.
Tawfiq told me that he thinks the protest had an impact on Egyptian society: “At least Egyptians were made aware of the situation of Sudanese refugees in Egypt, that was important. But in terms of daily life, in many ways things are worse than they were two years ago. Nothing has changed about UNHCR policy and I’m so worried about the future of my children that I have on many occasions thought of going to Israel to find work – or even back to Sudan. I’m between the sky and the earth – I have nothing here and life in Sudan is just as hard.”
The Israeli option
Increasing numbers of Sudanese refugees are crossing the border illegally into Israel – some 1,400 in the past month alone according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The journey is extremely dangerous and those intercepted before they enter Israel often disappear. “A group of 46 Sudanese refugees tried to enter Israel recently and were detained by the Egyptian authorities. We don’t know the whereabouts of over 40 of these people while one person has apparently been deported back to Sudan. He risks the death penalty there – going to an ‘enemy state’ is punishable as treason,” Harrell-Bond told me.
Yassir says that while he as a Muslim has ideological problems with the idea of going to Israel, for many Southern Sudanese it is their only way out of an intolerable situation in Egypt: “My friends working in Israel tell me that nobody ever insults them because of their colour, nobody calls them names. They are able to work and people leave them alone.”
I had wanted to talk to UNHCR’s Cairo office about the events of December 30th but was told by a spokesperson that everyone based in the office at that time has since been moved on rotation. When I told Yassir this he replied, “so it’s not just refugees who find it impossible to access UNHCR.”
Originally published in Daily News Egypt.