Sudanese Refugees Take to the Streets in Cairo
Refugee Rights News
Volume 2, No. 4
A courageous group of Sudanese refugees have taken to the streets to demand better treatment in Cairo. The protest began on September 29 when the refugees took up residence in a plaza near the UNHCR office in Cairo, for a sit in that has now lasted more than a month. As we went to press, a hunger strike had just begun.
The refugees have amassed a list of complaints including objection to the detention of Sudanese asylum seekers and immigrants in Egypt and the failure of UNHCR to
individually consider the cases of arriving asylum seekers. It is generally acknowledged that the level of assistance provided to refugees and asylum seekers is less than what would be desired. It is also recognized that Sudanese are often victims of discrimination. The refugees point to even more serious protection concerns—alleging, for example, that some of their fellows have even “disappeared” during their exile in Egypt.
The spark for the protest, however, seems to be changes in the UNHCR’s policy in dealing with Sudanese asylum seekers. Until recently, the UNHCR considered the cases of all Sudanese asylum seekers individually under its refugee status determination procedures. While these procedures were documented to be seriously flawed, they did allow asylum seekers the possibility of being granted
refugee status and the promise of resettlement in a third country. Unfortunately, however, many asylum seekers were not successful in their claims and, once their files were closed, many were trapped without any legal status in Egypt, vulnerable to harassment by the authorities and to forced return.
In June 2004, however, UNHCR decided to suspend all individual status determinations for Sudanese applicants for asylum, issuing all Sudanese asylum seekers with a “yellow card” which offered only temporary protection instead. UNHCR justified its decision by arguing that the yellow card system allows protection to be offered to a larger number of people. Refugees and their advocates, on the other hand, claim that the cards carry little in terms of privilege for those who hold them, offering only permission to reside and providing health care only in situations of extreme emergency, through UNHCR’s implementing partner, CARITAS.
A solution to the crisis has been difficult to negotiate, with refugees and asylum seekers and UNHCR failing to see eye to eye even on a process for the discussions. The refugees’ demands in fact explicitly denounce the two most often pursued “durable solutions” to refugee crises, local integration and repatriation.
The UNHCR insists that it has not forced anyone to return. Considering, however, the change in UNHCR policy in conducting individual interviews and the commencement of repatriation programs to the South in the wake of the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in January of this year, it is not difficult to imagine why refugees feel squeezed. In addition, given the allegations of disappearances and inadequate assistance, it is easy to see why refugees would perceive safe and successful local integration in Egypt as a remote possibility. That fact that until recently UNHCR had a policy of resettling most successful refugee applicants suggests that UNHCR itself does not consider that local integration in Egypt is a workable solution.
UNHCR, on the other hand, rightly points out that its hands are somewhat tied. While refugees have the right to return and the right to certain standards of treatment in exile, there is no internationally recognized right to resettlement. UNHCR claims that it has not suspended resettlement efforts, but simply that the number of cases meeting the resettlement criteria set by states has decreased. The UNHCR cannot force governments to accept more refugees for resettlement nor can it force donors to provide more funds for assistance in Cairo. This is not to say that the agency’s policies have no effect, certainly its policy of suspending individual status determination is, at a minimum making it more difficult to identify appropriate resettlement cases as its officers delve less deeply into the circumstances for each individual.
The refugees themselves are calling for a “radical solution” or to be relocated to a
country where “there is no discrimination.” The protest by refugees themselves, organizing on their own, is a powerful cry, but time has yet to tell whether it will result in the creative thinking and action that would be required to make such a “radical solution” a reality.