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FORUM – The Lessons of Cairo: A system of diffuse responsibility, with blame shared by all

June 16, 2006
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This month, the American University in Cairo’s Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program (FMRS) published a comprehensive report on theintense protests of Sudanese refugees in Egypt that ended in December with the death of at least 28 people.

The protests involved several thousand Sudanese frustrated by the suspension of refugee status determination and resettlement at UNHCR’s Cairo office. In this special forum update, RSDWatch publishes excerpts of the FMRS report and two commentaries that seek to find lessons for future refugee policy from the tragic events in Egypt.

The opinions expressed here may not represent the views of RSDWatch or Asylum Access, and are distributed here in the interests of public discussion.

By Katarzyna Grabska

Doctoral Researcher, Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex

The report compiled by the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program at the American University in Cairo on the tragic Sudanese refugee sit-in in Cairo brought back the memories of what happened. The report’s authors reconstruct the very complex context that preceded the tragic events of 30 December 2005, and their aftermath.

But the report does not ask a broader question: How did a situation like this come about in the first place?

A failed system or lack of one?

The tragedy in Cairo points directly to core issues of refugee protection: rights, accountability, and the locus of responsibility and multiplicity of governance in refugee regime. Refugee protection and assistance are unique in the realm of international human rights system because they require close cooperation between many actors, including host governments, governments in countries of origin, donors, inter-governmental organizations, and international and local NGOs. In this sense, the Cairo sit-in and its tragic ending shows the failure of a refugee system or lack of one, and all involved in this system should accept the blame for what happened.

Let us consider the refugee protection system in Egypt, if we can consider it to be an organized system at all. The muddling through approach which has been adopted by the government and the UNHCR, with shifting responsibilities between different actors, leaves refugees and those seeking protection in a vulnerable position, often in a legal limbo. Although Egypt is a signatory to multiple international human rights and refugee conventions, it has so far limited its role with respect to the protection of refugees to issuing residence papers and allowing those seeking asylum enter its territory. UNHCR has assumed the responsibility for granting refugee status and providing assistance through other international and local organizations.

These diffused roles and bureaucratic procedures create challenges for the effective provision of protection. For example, when refugee children approach public schools they are told that they need to submit a letter from UNHCR. At the same time, UNHCR argues that it is the duty of Ministry of Interior to provide such letters. The Ministry of Interior sends refugees back to UNHCR.

The police often fail to take reports and complaints from refugees, arguing that refugees are under the protection of UNHCR. UNHCR maintains that it provides legal but not physical protection for refugees. But some service providers see the role of UNHCR as encompassing provision of social assistance as part of its protection mandate.

Refugees on the other hand feel that it is the role of UNHCR to provide them with protection and assistance; they do not see themselves as the Egyptian government’s responsibility. Some even refer to UNHCR as their government: “We live in a country of UNHCR.” The demonstration was organised in front of the UNHCR office with demands directed towards the office exclusively. There was little reference to the Egyptian state.

For the past few years, there has been active lobbying on behalf of refugees in Egypt by academic institutions, international and local organisations and legal aid service providers in advocating for refugee rights. However, most lobbying efforts are directed at UNHCR, which is seen as the institution that can deliver ‘rights’. The problem with this approach is that rights have to be guaranteed by the state. With the state refusing to provide refugees access to rights and services, efforts to develop meaningful refugee protection in the country are futile.

Apart from the confused roles of the UNHCR and the government, a number of faith-based organisations and local NGOs also muddle through in an unstable system. Most of them run refugee-centred assistance programs supporting the temporary stay of refugees in Egypt.

Even organisations providing legal assistance to refugees and those seeking asylum center their services around legal advice on UNHCR procedures rather than access to national services and lobbying on behalf of refugees to the national authorities. All involved in the protection labyrinth in Egypt view the presence of refugees in the country as temporary, including refugees themselves, who call loudly for third country resettlement.

Mobilisation and multi-layered protection

The sit-in was an unprecedented event which brought Sudanese refugees of different walks of life together in demanding their rights.  One of the key slogans was: “Attention please: Who will restore our rights?”

The kind of protection that refugees (as human beings) need and seek is multi-layered.  Its starting point is legal but protection cannot be divorced from  opportunities for their economic self-sustenance and social development. Otherwise, legal protection  becomes void of meaning and effectiveness. That is why the Sudanese demonstrators were not satisfied with mere status recognition.

Because of the realities of poverty  and deprivation that different marginalized groups (citizens and non-citizens) suffer from in Egypt, it becomes even more dangerous to address issues of  refugees in isolation from the local community. The most effective protection  and integration of refugees is more likely to take place through bottom up  developmental programs in which poor nationals and non-nationals participate fully and actively.

The sit-in represented a case of refugees mobilising to take control over their lives, to demand and realise their rights. But when it came to the point of decision regarding the final proposal from UNHCR (17 December 2005), the refugees could not choose effectively. The underlying goal of the sit-in was a long-term solution for refugees in Egypt, a solution that people imagined but that no one could deliver. Because refugees see the obstacles to effective protection in Egypt, they see resettlement as their right and the duty of UNHCR. But international refugee policy provides no such right to resettlement.

Tragedy in Cairo points to the failure of refugee protection as a principle and as a system. Lack of clarity about who is responsible means that rights can be neglected with impunity.

As one donor representative in Egypt told me, “nobody will burn their fingers for refugees”. At the end of the day, they are not citizens, and hence not entitled to the same level of treatment and attention. Diffusion of responsibility, a near universal assumption that the Egyptian government cannot or will not do more for refugees, and false expectations by refugees that they could instead obtain their rights through international organizations and resettlement abroad all contributed to the tragedy.

With failures so broad, nearly everyone involved with refugees in Egypt must share the blame for 30 December.

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