Xenophobic, discriminatory, and sometimes violent; these adjectives are often used to describe Egyptians’ attitude towards refugees, especially after the revolution. While Egyptians sought to be unified to raise their demands in the 25 January revolution, refugee communities including Sudanese refugees found themselves left out, disintegrated and distrusted. According to the Egyptian Foundation for Refugee Rights, refugee complaints about violence, discrimination, detention, and arbitrary arrest increased by over 20 percent after the revolution.
The Sudanese refugee community is the biggest refugee community in Egypt. Over 50 years of civil war between North and South Sudan has led to the deaths of over a million people and the migration of displaced persons to neighbouring states such as Egypt, Kenya, and further afield.
After the 2011 referendum that resulted in the creation of South Sudan, the violence there did not end and many Sudanese refugees are still fleeing to Egypt. “The actual creation of the new state of South Sudan has not had a massive effect on the number of Sudanese refugees, but the number of people seeking to be recognised by the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] as refugees is about 13,500 people” said C, an employee of a local community-based organisation (CBO) that works closely with Sudanese refugees who preferred to remain nameless.
He continued to explain the procedures that the UNHCR is taking to resolve the issue of the 13,500 people seeking to be granted the status of refugees. “The UNHCR responded to the large numbers of people coming to them by giving permanent temporary protection; a yellow card that grants its holder not to be returned to the country he or she fled.” Normally the yellow card protects its holder and provides them with a date for a refugee status determination interview, however in Egypt due to the large numbers of Sudanese refugees, the UNHCR decided to grant them all yellow cards, which denies them access to many of their basic rights such as adequate medical care.
In April, the UNHCR estimated the number of Sudanese refugees in Egypt at 24,680 out of 44,769 refugees (about 55 percent). Being the biggest refugee population however, has not stopped Sudanese refugees from suffering. On the contrary, the Sudanese community has experienced both a legal dilemma and a lack of social integration in Egyptian society.
In 2005, many Sudanese refugees protested in Mustafa Mahmoud Square in Mohandessin against the granting of UNHCR Blue (refugee) and yellow (asylum seeker) cards. To disperse the protestors, Egyptian riot and security police attacked and killed more than 23 refugees, including children. This incident destroyed any image Egypt had as a safe haven for refugees and discouraged refugees from coming to Egypt.
According to C, this is a “legal limbo” for Sudanese refugees because they have a protective yellow card, but they are not refugees yet. Nonetheless, since last July this policy changed with regards to two areas in response to their dire humanitarian situation; Darfur and the Nuba Mountains. For these regions the UNHCR is back to granting some refugees a blue card that acknowledges them as refugees.
Ironically, even after attaining a blue card, refugees face another hurdle. One of the agreements according to which Egypt handles refugees is the 1951 Refugee Convention. The convention states the rights that the recipient country should grant to refugees. Nevertheless, Egypt has made several reservations to the convention, ostensibly to prevent equating Egyptians with non-nationals. These reservations include cancelling the rights of refugees to primary education, medical care even at times of emergencies, and discrimination in employment and housing.
On the issue of resettlement H, from the same CBO, who also opted to remain nameless, said “with regards to resettlement in another country, the issue is much more complicated because each country provides a certain quota for each nationality.” This slows down the process of resettlement for years and subjects refugees to difficult circumstances such as the ones Sudanese refugees face.
As a consequence of the 2005 incident and the deprivation Sudanese refugees endure in Egypt, some opt to flee to Israel where they are able to make a living and have access to medical care and educational opportunities. This however, has backfired for some and led to accusations of spying, an accusation which has persisted after the revolution.
During the Egyptian revolution, the UNHCR closed their offices due to the instability and chaos in Cairo. Consequently, UNHCR services such as registration and status determination were temporarily suspended. As a result of the instability, the Sudanese community suffered from a lack of financial assistance and protection services throughout that period.
When asking about the contributions of Sudanese refugees during the Egyptian revolution, experts and those working with refugees said it is difficult to quantify. Sudanese refugees were like refugees of other nationalities; sometimes they were targets for interrogation by their Egyptians neighbours who thought they might be conspiring against Egypt in some of the popular protests in Tahrir Square. Egyptian state TV propagated this “foreign conspiracy”, indoctrinating people with that belief throughout the first 18 days of the revolution.
As a result, many refugees were barred from joining al-ligan al-sha’bia, popular committees which people formed to protect public and private properties when the Egyptian police forces disappeared from the streets of Cairo. However, in some neighborhoods refugees were allowed to join.
Since 25 January last year, Sudanese protests, demonstrations, strikes and sit-ins have increased. Sometimes they are regarded as a continuation of the revolution and in other instances they are considered as partisan demands and have negative connotations among the Egyptian population. However, after the new influx of refugees due to increasing violence in the Nuba Mountains, Sudanese refugees are now protesting peacefully. Last August, about 150 Sudanese women protested in front of the UNHCR, condemning the discrimination and harassment they face.
They chanted “no to rape,” “no to arbitrary detention,” “no to forced migration,” and “yes to justice, security, and stability” and “yes to resettlement.” These women became so desperate that they now demand relocating the UNHCR office to a safer third country, resettling with the office all Sudanese refugees, especially women and children and reopening closed files. Currently it is unclear if the new government will take their concerns into consideration.
Before the revolution, Egyptians were unaware of many of their rights as stated in the constitution and so unable to exercise their civil and political ones. Under the former authoritarian regime, the dire situation of refugees in Egypt might have been somewhat understandable. Today, as a country in transition with a deteriorating economic crisis, Sudanese activists are calling on Egyptian civil society organisations, policy makers and constitution writers to pay attention to the plight of refugees.
They are asking for the basic rights any recipient country should provide with regards to protection, education, employment, and medical care. The reservations Egypt made on the 1951 Refugee Convention are in need of amending. “To remove the reservation on the 1951 convention, that is a goal and the dream that everyone working with refugees wishes to realise” said C.
On a societal level, refugees need to be both supported within their own communities and at the same time given the chance to integrate into Egyptian society in order to be able to deal with the psychological and sometimes physical effects of the atrocities they have escaped in their home countries.