Sevcik's Blog

A year in Cairo Egypt

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Massive Sudanese Demonstration/Protest!

**Let me preface this by stating that I’m speaking from what I know or have heard and do not claim that all of this is perfectly factual. There, I’ve covered my butt, I hope. J

On 29 September a group of about 20 Sudanese gathered at the UNHCR reception area (a small grassy field area) holding placards reading such things as “No to voluntary repatriation in Sudan,” “We want resettlement,” and “No to local integration in Egypt.” Since then, the demonstration has been growing (around 1,500 people on 9 October) and growing. Thankfully no violence has occurred, and to my knowledge no one has been arrested (yet).

The American University in Cairo’s (AUC) Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program conducts weekly seminars to discuss refugee issues around the world. Last night’s series was “Sudanese Refugee Sit-In at Moustafa Mahmoud Mosque”. A panel of four refugee speakers explained and discussed the protest and then opened the floor for questions.

Each Sudanese tribe has a community leader (or several) who speak on behalf of the tribe. Community leaders are recognized and respected by the UNHCR. Unfortunately, this demonstration is not led by these community leaders. No one is sure who is leading the demonstration, and that has and will inevitably cause even more problems. Based on Sudanese culture, the fact that someone(s) decided to start this protest without going through the community leaders shows great disrespect and disloyalty to the tribe and its leaders. The community leaders want the demonstration to stop (and are meeting tomorrow morning to discuss what can be done), but those at the sit-in refuse to listen and some have even said, “I’d rather die here than leave.”

So who are the people following? They are following someone(s) with bad intentions, or bad logic, or both. Even though we all want human rights for the Sudanese, the UNHCR does not have the power to do what the organizers are demanding. The UNHCR can only guarantee political protection. They cannot guarantee criminal protection or economic protection, etc. Therefore, the organizers are not so well-informed about what they are going against and it will most likely come back to bite them in the butt.

The more I learn about the situation, the more I see that this is not a UNHCR-is-to-blame deal. Globally, fewer and fewer dollars are being used for refugee issues, especially in light of other disasters such as the tsunami and hurricanes. In addition, immigration laws have nothing to do with the UNHCR. If the USA says no to Sudanese immigration, there is little to nothing the UNHCR can do about it. Contrary to rumors, the UNHCR is NOT forcing anyone to do anything, whether it’s to stay in Egypt or resettle back home in Sudan. And, of course, with the peace agreement in Sudan there is an even greater reduction in resettlement funding. If anything, donors want money to help with repatriation (which, at this point, is completely voluntary).

I’m hoping there will be a good outcome from this protest, but thus far it doesn’t look good. Why? First of all, the Sudanese population already has a negative reputation in Egypt; not because they ‘behave incorrectly’ per se, but because they are ‘different’ and come here looking for jobs in a country already dealing with a huge employment rate. (Think of American’s skewed view of Mexicans in America; this is similar but more extreme.) Even though the sit-in has been peaceful to this point, it will inevitably only make the Sudanese look like troublemakers. The protestors are gathered in a small square outside a famous mosque, and beginning next Wednesday evening thousands of Egyptian Muslims will demand the ground for prayer time (rightfully so). Next Wednesday marks the Eid El Fitr, the end of Ramadan. It’s a four-day celebration including huge feasts and a lot of community and prayer time. People from all over Cairo use the Moustafa Mahmoud Mosque for this occasion and unless the Sudanese find a solution before then and leave, there will likely be big problems.

One thing getting me fired up is that the demonstrators are starting to get the most vulnerable people involved—the children. An “Urgent and Important Statement” has been circulating through the Sudanese population. Dick had the message translated into English and it’s basically asking the parents of the students in the “irregular” school (including St. Andrews) “to join the spirit of solidarity and persistence in joining the sit-in at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office”. It states, “We do not reject education but education should be institutionalized to ensure a future for our children and not a temporary irregular education so that your rights and the rights of your children in education and in an honorable bright future is not lost. We call on you to withdraw your children from the irregular schools and we call on the students to join their peers in the Garden of the Miserable, the citadel of persistence. Do you lose your rights and the rights of your children with your own hands.” Signed, “The Voice of the Sudanese Refugees in Cairo.” Thankfully, we have not noticed a decrease in our attendance at St. Andrew’s and pray we won’t. As frustrated as they are, taking the children away from these “irregular” schools will not solve the problem, since we exist to help them!

This is serious. Based on what I heard at the forum last night and through conversations with Sudanese, it almost seems like children are being put in the front line on purpose. That way, if the situation turns violent, the international media will finally get involved. One thought is that if a few adults die, oh well, but if children die it will cause an international out roar and finally something will be done to help the Sudanese. I pray this is not the true intentions.
In some cases it almost seems as though some Sudanese don’t want real help. There were a great number of powerful and generous Westerners at the meeting last night, and when many of them asked what they could do to help, no answer was given. Thing is, if the lives of the refugees gets better here, they are concerned they will be forced to stay in Egypt because life here would then be ‘just fine’. Sadly, some do not want to cooperate (even though they seem like they do) because they want the world to see their miserable situation and help.

The four refugee speakers (and others?) met with the UNHCR yesterday morning. According to these speakers, the UNHCR would not meet any of their requests and did not take the meeting seriously, as though it was a meeting between a father and a child. They believe the UNHCR came up with unrealistic ideas, such as establishing a group to go to southern Sudan to see what the situation is really like there. The refugee’s response was, “We don’t need to go to south Sudan; just go to Sakakini and you’ll know!” (Sakakini is another church school where many new refugees go to enroll their children in school.) But, as I’ll soon mention, people may very well be lying about their situation.

I know this all sounds incredibly harsh, but I’m presenting the situation as I know it. Of course, working with the Sudanese leaves me with great compassion for their situation and a great desire to help them. What’s so sad about this current sit-in situation is the Sudanese who are participating are so uniformed and desperate that they have lost their jobs and their flats in order to protest. They have been told demonstrating will help them. Misleading rumors are being spread; rumors saying those who participate will receive UNHCR money, or better yet, a ticket out of Egypt. Thing is, so many Sudanese fled to Egypt believing this is only a temporary place of residence until they get a ticket to a first world country. In the past there was much truth to that, but since the peace treaty was signed, there has been little to no resettlement and the Sudanese are left feeling helpless and hopeless.

Unfortunately, there are some Sudanese who are coming to Egypt for economic or medical reasons and truly aren’t feeling as refugees. Of course, in order to get refugee status (and thus some protection) they lie about their reasons for being here. The UNHCR and other organizations have caught on to this and thus are much stricter about who is accepted by the UNHCR. It’s very sad, because there are many legitimate refugees who REALLY need help!

Below is the Statement presented by the Sudanese
1. We, the Sudanese refugees in Cairo, fear that UNHCR or the Egyptian government will impose compulsory involuntary repatriation to the South because we read in UNHCR’s newsletters about repatriation how things have improved there. We have contrary information and are afraid to return.
2. Because of racial discrimination and no protection from it, lack of the right to work, to health and education, we can see no possibilities of our integrating into the Egyptian society, even temporarily.
3. We believe that UNHCR is making unfair distinctions between Sudanese refugees according to their ethnic/geographical origins in Sudan.
4. We ask UNHCR to intervene on behalf of those refugees who have been arbitrarily detained by police and to seek their release immediately.
5. We believe that UNHCR is obliged to consider each refugee’s prospects for the future on an individual basis.
6. We fear the application of the Four Freedoms Act, signed between the Egyptian and Sudanese government, because we do not know how it will affect the refugees who do not have passports, but hold refugee status IDs. There is no guarantee that it will provide us access to work and education and may put us out of reach of UNHCR protection.
7. We fear the presence of Sudanese National Conference personnel in Egypt and ask UNHCR to ensure our protection from them.
8. We request UNHCR register Sudanese asylum seekers immediately on arrival because delays threaten their protection.
9. We call upon UNHCR to help us locate missing the Sudanese refugees that we have identified.
10. We implore UNHCR to reconsider their criteria for assisting vulnerable refugees, in particular elders, unaccompanied minors and women who are currently being denied financial support.
11. Because most files that are now closed were closed when procedures for RSD at UNHCR were faulty, in the interests of fairness, we request UNHCR to reconsider the files of those Sudanese refugees which have been closed.
12. Realizing that Sudanese refugees are faced daily with discrimination and violence and a denial of their human rights, we urge UNHCR to pursue resettlement for as many of the most vulnerable cases as possible.


  • At 12/02/2005, Blogger Kimberly said…

    Im in one of the AUC FMRS classes right now with Dr. Harrel-Bond. I was at the panel- i think you covered what happened very well. I agree with you about some Sudanese not wanting help, and I think in many ways they are ruining the chances of those who are willing to compromise.

    Anyway, nice post...


  • At 9/18/2006, Blogger News & Information said…

    It is a sad state of affairs and I am hopeful that it gets better for the Sudanese.

  • At 11/22/2009, Anonymous Anonymous said…

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