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Defying expectations, Sudanese protestors in Cairo oppose UNHCR’s group-based RSD policies

November 13, 2005

For more than a month in a large Cairo square, hundreds of Sudanese refugees staged a protest against the UN refugee agency’s decision to recognize them as refugees on a group basis. The protestors also oppose being settled in Egypt or returning to Sudan.

The protestors, by some estimates numbering around 1200, have gathered in a plaza adjacent to both the UNHCR office and the Mustafa Mahmoud mosque complex. Their demonstration began days before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, and defied expectations by continuing through the Eid al-Fitr holiday (3-6 November).

Egyptian police, who had allowed the protest throughout Ramadan, were widely expected to attempt to remove the demonstrators before the plaza became the site of Eid al-Fitr festivities. Instead, the police erected screens to separate the protest from the festival and allowed the demonstration to go on. According to some media reports, the protestors have included children, and at least one Sudanese woman may have fallen ill and died during the demonstration.

According to UNHCR, Egypt currently hosts around 30,000 Sudanese refugees. The protestors’ main complaints center on their poor living conditions, and stem from UNHCR’s decision in June 2004 to grant all Sudanese asylum-seekers temporary protection rather than subject them to individual refugee status determination (RSD), as had been the practice for the previous nine years.

But the protestors’ demands also illustrate that the assumptions of refugee policy do not always reflect the actual desires of refugees.

Background: Refugee policy shifts in Egypt

Until June 2004, Sudanese refugees in Egypt applied individually to one of UNHCR’s largest RSD operations in the world. In most years, the majority of applicants were rejected, although this changed in 2003 when UNHCR-Cairo began applying the wider African refugee definition in addition to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Like most UNHCR offices that conduct RSD, UNHCR did not give rejected applicants specific reasons for rejection, denied them access to the evidence in their files, and did not establish a fully independent appeal system. On the other hand, UNHCR-Cairo was ahead of many other offices in allowing asylum-seekers to obtain legal aid in their applications.

But beyond the struggles Sudanese faced obtaining recognition of their refugee status, one of the biggest refugee policy dilemmas in Egypt has long been how to promote a “durable solution” for refugees. In theory, the top two durable solutions for refugees promoted by UNHCR are voluntary repatriation and local integration. Yet neither were prominent in Egypt until recently.

UNHCR provided recognized refugees with limited financial aid, along with medical services and education. Yet UNHCR services were strained by steadily declining resources and a growing refugee population.

In practice, UNHCR referred the majority of recognized Sudanese refugees in Egypt for resettlement to western countries. While established international refugee policy limits eligibility for resettlement, recognition of refugee status by UNHCR-Cairo was often perceived to be a promise of resettlement rather than as a guarantee of rights in Egypt.

Resettlement pleased refugees who were able to relocate mainly to the U.S., Canada and Australia. It also complied with an arrangement with the Egyptian Government dating to the 1950s in which Egypt agreed to let refugees stay temporarily while UNHCR agreed to promote their resettlement or repatriation.

Yet the heavy reliance on resettlement also produced criticism that refugee welfare in Egypt was being neglected while UNHCR operated as little more than a “travel agency.” Only a minority of the asylum-seekers who applied actually managed to make it to the west, since the majority normally failed in the RSD process. Sudanese who were refused refugee recognition at UNHCR ended up in what one writer dubbed “closed file limbo.”

This basic policy continues in Egypt for most nationalities, but not for Sudanese, who constitute the vast majority of non-Palestinian refugees in the country.

In June 2004 UNHCR halted individual status determination for Sudanese, instead granting them temporary protection on a group basis. The change coincided with the peace process in southern Sudan. UNHCR has since begun to promote voluntary repatriation instead of resettlement for southern Sudanese.

The protestors’ demands

The protestors and the Sudanese Human Rights Organization in Cairo have demanded that UNHCR address their poor housing and economic situation in Egypt, and have complained about abusive treatment by UNHCR staff, including neglect of vulnerable children, women and elderly.

The protest has mainly taken the form of a continuing quiet sit-in, with growing numbers of refugees arriving throughout October. According to media reports, signs read, “We reject local integration” and “We are the victims of mismanagement.” The demonstrators have complained that they face rampant racism and violence in Egypt, and have displayed banners with photographs of Sudanese they say have disappeared or been killed in Egypt.

The calm promoted by the organizers along with the restraint of the Egyptian police have been a marked contrast to an August 2004 demonstration at UNHCR that turned violent, leading to the arrest of 20 Sudanese refugees.

A list of 13 “requests” compiled by the demonstrators repeated these themes, rejecting “compulsory voluntary repatriation,” objecting to long term life in Egypt, and calling UNHCR’s policies toward Sudanese “unfair.” They asked UNHCR to search for missing Sudanese in Egypt.

But their main demand has been to reverse the June 2004 policy. They have called for an end to UNHCR’s repatriation program to Sudan, re-opening of closed files, and a resumption of RSD and resettlement.

Demonstrators’ resistance to local integration in Egypt might be indirectly encouraged by UNHCR policy. Because UNHCR in theory promotes resettlement only when no other durable solution is available, refugees who want to resettle have reason to resist policy changes that improve their local conditions.

This might explain why the refugee demonstrators are opposing implementation of the 2004 “Four Freedoms” agreement between Egypt and Sudan. If implemented, the agreement would grant Egyptian and Sudanese citizens reciprocal residency rights in each country.

From a legal point of view the Four Freedoms agreement could be a potential breakthrough for Sudanese in Egypt. But for exactly the same reason it might force Sudanese refugees to remain in Egypt for the long term.

A challenge to the assumptions of international refugee policy

The demonstrators’ complaints about racismpoor living conditionsarbitrary arrests andimproper RSD procedures in Egypt have been echoed separately by human rights groups, academic studies, media reports and even UNHCR’s own reports on Egypt. But the general thrust of the protestors’ demands shows that refugee rights, international policy and refugees’ own preferences are not always in synch.

A first gap concerns the basic question of who is ultimately responsible for refugee welfare. Protestors are demanding an end to arbitrary detention and protesting Egyptian racism. Primary legal responsibility for such issues rests with the Egyptian government, not with UNHCR. But the protestors have addressed all of their concerns to UNHCR.

“Most of the demands of the Sudanese demonstrators are beyond the UNHCR’s control,” UNHCR said in a statement quoted by international media.

Egypt is one of several dozen countries that have ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention but have nevertheless left RSD in the hands of UNHCR. This transfer of responsibility can obscure normal legal principles about who is accountable for refugee policy.

Another gap concerns status determination policy. One of the key requests by the protestors is for “the UNHCR to consider Sudanese refugee status determination as individuals not as a group.” This puts the demonstrations at odds not just with UNHCR but also with refugee advocates who have sought to expand group-based refugee status determination in Egypt in order to avoid many of the pitfalls inherent in individual RSD.

“The decision to stop individual status determination interviews for the Sudanese was done to protect a larger number of Sudanese,” said UNHCR spokeswoman Leila Nassif in aninterview published in the online African newsletter Pambakuka News.

In 2002, refugee rights lawyer Michael Kagan (now RSDWatch manager) published a study critiquing UNHCR’s RSD procedures in Cairo. After concluding that UNHCR’s procedures were unfair and that UNHCR’s resources were declining, Kagan argued that UNHCR should recognize more refugees on a group basis in order to avoid rejecting people in danger and to focus resources more efficiently. Similar calls have been made by Dr. Barbara Harrell-Bond, a professor at the American University in Cairo and the most prominent refugee rights advocate in Egypt.

Policy says repatriate, refugees say resettle

Promoting repatriation has always been part of UNHCR’s mandate, but during the Cold War resettlement programs tended to receive more emphasis. In the last two decades this has been changed. Scholars of forced migration policy say that such shifts reflect changing political priorities on the part of governments more than refugee interests.

One of the trademarks of UNHCR’s durable solutions policy is that refugees are not allowed to choose for themselves what solution fits them best. Instead, officials usually tell refugees what solution will be promoted for them. Refugees who want to resettle can therefore be asked to locally integrate or consider returning home instead. In part this reflects the state of international law. Refugees have a right to return and the right to be protected in a host country. But there is no right to resettle to a third country.

UNHCR often portrays its emphasis on repatriation as a reflection of refugee desires. A prominent poster displayed in many UNHCR offices shows smiling refugees on a truck above the slogan, “Many happy returns.” When a peace process shows some promise, as in southern Sudan, UNHCR plans for repatriation are usually not far behind.

Yet the refugees protesting in Cairo argue that repatriation is effectively being imposed on them. They say that denying them resettlement effectively leaves them little other choice, since they say racism and harsh living conditions make it impossible to stay in Egypt.

In her online interview, Nassif insisted that UNHCR opposed forced returns to Sudan. “Voluntary means voluntary and we do not force any person to return against his or her will,” she said.

Nassif argued that refugees in Egypt do face difficult conditions, but not necessarily more difficult than poor Egyptians, and were better off than refugees in other countries. Yet for years UNHCR had promoted resettlement on the premise that refugees could not locally integrate in Egypt.


Photographs of the protest have been posted on the internet.

For more information about these protests, see complete coverage in Pambazuka News

Also read: US Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 2005 — Egypt

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