Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Sudanese Sojourners in Egypt

By Ashley Makar

When Kuol Maketh went to collect what his fellow Sudanese asylum seekers had lost in the December 30th police raid on their protest camp–passports, identity cards, photographs, blankets, bottles and bags, he found nothing.

Egyptian sanitation workers had already cleared the rubble of the three-month Sudanese sit-in outside the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office (UNHCR) in Cairo. “The situation became an issue of public disorder,” a UNHCR Cairo spokesperson Astrid van Genderen Stort told the New York Times in the wake of the raid. It was a public health threat.

Now, UNHCR Cairo purports to be attending to the health and security problems of the two thousand victims of the raid: The refugee agency is trying to prevent the Egyptian government from deporting over five hundred Sudanese asylum seekers who have been detained since police evacuated the camp, for not having valid documents on their persons. Stort told Reuters that UNHCR aid workers distributed blankets and medication to hundreds of others who had been released and were finding shelter at Sakakini Catholic Church in central Cairo.
But Sakakini is no longer a haven for those who lost their possessions in the protest camp.

Those seeking shelter in the church were also evacuated, according to Sudanese priest John Matiop (names have been changed for protection), not by force, but fear: Someone circulated word that the Sudanese protestors were going to launch a coup against the Egyptian government, police surrounded the church, and the released demonstrators dispersed, to find shelter among other Sudanese living all over Cairo.

Matiop said the coup rumor is not true, and protest organizer George Deng says the UNHCR office in Cairo has been telling lies: Deng went to the bank to collect the financial assistance the refugee agency claims to be providing those who were dispossessed by the raid. The bank said his name wasn’t on their list. The international press reports that the protestors rejected a UNHCR concession of one-time financial assistance–$700 for local integration and $250 for families willing to return to Sudan. Deng said he never heard of such an offer.

At Refuge Egypt, an Episcopal ministry for displaced Africans in Cairo, Deng and other protest organizers told me their version of the protest raid: Riot police started coming around 10 pm, replacing the security vehicles that had been surrounding the park with buses. A member of the protest committee went to ask the Giza security officers who had been guarding the camp why. They said there was going to be an anti-government demonstration after Friday prayers at Mousafa Mahmoud Mosque the next day, and there needed to be extra security in the area. Later that night, the riot police surrounded the park and announced, “we’ve prepared a camp for you.” The protestors said they would consider going, but they wanted to see where. The riot police refused and, without warning, unleashed water cannons. The water contained chemicals; the protestors could feel it in their skin. Police beat them with batons and threw children like stones.

Deng complains that UNHCR Cairo is talking to the media about the “donations” it is offering the refugees because it doesn’t want to change its policies or acknowledge what happened: What about the people who are dying? he asked. Who will be responsible for the protestors whom the Egyptian government killed?

The Egyptian daily Al Ahram reports that the protestors killed themselves, in a stampede. Echoing the Sudanese Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, the Egyptian Interior Ministry blamed the Sudanese protestors for inciting the police attack. The ministry gave two justifications for the violence in official statements: that the refugees ignored a Sudanese Embassy ultimatum to evacuate the camp and that police were protecting the UNHCR from threats of attack from the protestors, more lies, according to Deng.

Deng and three other protest participants told me that four Sudanese Embassy delegates tried to attack the camp in October. The protestors said they seized the attackers and handed them over to Egyptian police. “If I were in the West, the Sudanese Embassy [couldn’t] attack me,” Deng said. “In Egypt, they can.”

The protestors were demanding an air lift or a promise, a way out of Egypt. They rejected the UNHCR proposal of “local integration” as a “durable solution.” They don’t believe the UNHCR can protect them in Egypt.

UNHCR Cairo has repeatedly told Sudanese asylum seekers that resettlement out of Egypt is not a right. But the protesters harbor a sense of entitlement to third-country asylum, based on their reading of the Geneva Convention Related to the Status of Refugees.

The Egyptian government made several reservations when it became a contracting state to the Geneva 1951 Convention. Unlike refugees in other 1951 contract state, those residing in Egypt are not guaranteed what is available to citizens with regard to subsidized food and medication, education, and social services. Since Sudanese asylum seekers find no work, educational opportunities, or affordable living in Cairo, they believe they have the right to be resettled elsewhere.

The protestors also reject the UNHCR’s offer of assistance for “voluntary repatriation” to Sudan. Since the Sudanese civil war ended with a peace agreement between the southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), lead by the late John Garang, and the Omar al-Beshir’s Khartoum-based government in January 2005, UNHCR Cairo has been offering repatriation as a “durable solution” for Sudanese asylum seekers in Cairo.

Though many are African Christians war refugees from southern Sudan, there are Northern Sudanese political refugees and African Muslims fleeing the current conflict in Darfur. Released protest leaders say none of Sudan is secure: Omar al-Beshir is a war criminal.

After the raid on the protest camp, Sudanese asylum seekers don’t trust the UNHCR to repatriate them. Many complain that the assistance the refugee agency is offering–$100 for individuals and $250 for families–is hardly enough to get to Khartoum, where all fear persecution. Furthermore, going to southern Sudan is not yet safe: The land mines are still there, and the peace is tenuous. “Where is John Garang?!” Johanna, one of the protest participants asked.

Garang was killed in August 2005 in a suspicious plane crash between Uganda and Sudan. Riots broke out among southern Sudanese youth in Khartoum. They believed the Sudanese government killed Garang. Over twenty died in violent confrontations with Sudanese security forces.

Cairo protest leader Akol Appai showed me a list of people who had died in the police raid, from Zenhom Morgue.
Twenty-seven, the official casualty figure reported by the Egyptian Interior Ministry, another lie, according to Deng. Number twenty-one was Betty Asongo Bendalino, whose family came to the morgue and requested that her body be returned to Sudan.


At 5:20 PM , Anonymous raif said...

A horrific tragedy, in the full sense of the word. What is even moer tragic is that all these deaths were fully avoidable.

There was absolutely no need for the brutal force used by the police against civilians asking for basic human needs.

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