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FORUM – The Lessons of Cairo: Resettlement and desperation

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 Michael Timmins

Lawyer (New Zealand); Former legal advisor at Africa Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA) in Egypt

It has now been nearly six months since the ending of the demonstration in Mustafa Mahmoud Park around the corner from the UNHCR office in Cairo, Egypt.

The demonstration itself arose out of frustration.  It continued out of false hope and a sense of desperation.  What appears is that there is a fundamental lack of awareness within the refugee community as to their rights and the realities of their situation.  What caused that lack of awareness and the demonstration itself must be the subject of constructive comment and analysis.

Participants in the Demonstration

In Egypt, UNHCR undertakes the RSD process in the absence of the Egyptian Government performing this role.  In June 2004 UNHCR ceased processing Sudanese asylum applications due to the peace agreement executed by the Government of Sudan and the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Movement.  Before this, any successful Sudanese applicants had been issued with a “Blue Card” by UNHCR and recognized as Convention refugees.  Sudanese applicants who registered with UNHCR after June 2004 were given interim protection and issued with a “Yellow Card” but were not to receive a RSD interview until further notice.

Applicants who had been denied refugee status by UNHCR after completing the appeal process were (and are) considered “Closed Files” by UNHCR.  Accordingly, these Closed Files are not considered to be “persons of concern” by UNHCR.

Yellow Card holders are not eligible for resettlement and are not able to access the same level of services as Blue Card holders.  Nor do they have the psychological assurance and vindication that full refugee status provides.  By late September 2005, UNHCR was still not processing Sudanese applications, meaning that there was a large group of Sudanese Yellow Card holders with increasing levels of frustration.  This issue, combined with the already extant frustrations of those who were not being resettled, led a group of Sudanese to begin the demonstration in Mustafa Mahmoud Park.

The obvious target of the demonstration was UNHCR.  Mustafa Mahmoud Park is where refugees and asylum seekers must wait every morning to be met by UNHCR officials before some of them are allowed access to the office itself – essentially, the UNHCR “waiting room.” The demands that were announced over the three months of the demonstration showed their frustration and also their unrealistic expectations in what could tangibly be achieved, including demanding resettlement for everyone in the demonstration.

UNHCR’s immediate response to the demonstration was to close its office in the interests of staff security.  Closing the office prevented any new arrivals, Sudanese or otherwise, from being able to register with UNHCR and seek protection.  Furthermore, this decision gave the demonstration leaders a huge amount of leverage very early on in the demonstration.  They could point to the closed office and show that their actions were having tangible repercussions at UNHCR engendering more support and defiance within the demonstration.

What seems to be clear, without the official figures to support it, is that the group of demonstrators included both Yellow Card and Blue Card holders, Closed Files, and newcomers to Egypt, all seeking UNHCR protection and, perhaps naively, the hope of resettlement to a third country.

Perception of resettlement

Many refugees in Cairo consider that resettlement is a right that flows directly from refugee status recognition.  That is simply not the case.  There is a complete misunderstanding within the entire refugee community in Cairo as to what resettlement actually is, and how the process works.  The expectations are too high and this leads to considerable frustration.

Of course, this is understandable.  Refugees are going to want to be resettled to a third country rather than remain in Egypt.  Due to the reservations made by Egypt upon signing the 1951 Convention, refugees have limited access to social services, education and legal employment. Many refugees also report daily racial discrimination on the streets of Cairo.  The lure of resettlement to another country is simply too great.

To overcome these high expectations, UNHCR needs to disseminate through the Cairo refugee community the realities of resettlement and what it actually means to be granted refugee status in Egypt.  In the past, there have been attempts to disseminate information by coordinating with NGOs in Cairo to run community outreach clinics.  These clinics need to be revisited.  Why they ceased needs to be assessed and overcome.

Furthermore, any decision in the future to cease processing the applications and instead imposing a temporary status on a class of applicants must be made more carefully.  There should be a timeline set the suspension to be reviewed. A class of applicants cannot be disenfranchised indefinitely or the frustrations that arose in this case will arise again and individuals will seek to take matters into their own hands.

The demonstration has shown that there is a crying need for refugees to be made aware of the realities of their situation, providing this service falls within UNHCR’s mandate.  There is a rebuilding of trust that must occur following the demonstration, and community outreach programs will make UNHCR seem more accessible to the community it is intended to serve.

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