Intimidation, harassment, abuse, arrests, no future, no home. What is the situation of refugees after the January 25 Revolution in Egypt?
"No one cares about what happens to refugees anyhow. Last week 300 Egyptians were detained without cause. No one cares about refugees," expressed an employee of a Cairo-based refugee organization in response to the arrest of Monim Atron Soliman, a Darfuri refugee activist, just weeks before Egypt’s first democratic presidential elections. Fear runs deep. Public expression of views with name, is gambling without knowing the odds. Unencrypted phone calls, emails or Facebook messages carry the risk of being intercepted. According to Egyptian journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy the dreaded Egyptian intelligence services, the "Mubarak oppression machine”, continues to work as usual. Security agents intimidate, observe, shut down NGOs and detain troublemakers and political opponents suspected of collaborating with the enemy. An enemy that is everywhere and nowhere. In early October 2012, an Amnesty International report observed that “endemic abuses by police have continued since the uprising... So far reforms have merely scratched the surface. Instead, [interior ministers] have tried to restore emergency-like legislation in the name of restoring security.” If the new Muslim Brotherhood led government will reform the long-feared security apparatus remains to be seen.
The position of the Sudanese and other Africans in Libya began to change fundamentally in 2004, as the "brother leader" Gaddafi and his Jamahiriya gained readmission to the world community. Italy and other European countries saw an opportunity to receive gas concessions in Libya, and to stop the wave of African migrants traversing the Mediterranean. From then on Gaddafi prevented African refugees from crossing the sea to Lampedusa and other gateways to Europe. The EU invested millions into strengthening the Libyan borders, including the country’s detention and deportation capacities. As a result, Sudanese, Eritrean and Somali refugees that arrived in Libya after 2005 have often disappeared in prisons indefinitely, underwent torture with electric shocks and nails, and if still alive, finally pushed over to the closest by Libyan border, or left to die in remote desert areas.
Following the improvement of EU-Libya relations in 2004, the refugee route which once ran from the Horn of Africa via Egypt, to Libya, came to a stop in Egypt. An unclear number of refugees and migrants accumulate mainly in the slums of Cairo. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recognized around 60,000, refugees and asylum seekers in 2010, and 100,000 in 2011. Considering vast under-registration, unofficial refugee numbers in Egypt range from 500,000 to 4 million. Since 2005 tens of thousands of refugees began taking the route through the Sinai to Israel.
Presumably at the behest of the Israeli government the Egyptian military released a shoot-to-kill order for refugees, who attempted to cross into Israel through the peninsula, as was confirmed by the former governor of North Sinai in 2009. At least 70 refugees have been shot dead by the Egyptian army since 2007. In 2010 Israel started with the construction of a border wall along the western Negev frontier to keep out infiltrators, as the Israeli government refers to African migrants. With the breakaway of repressive police control over the peninsula and Bedouin tribes, the Egyptian government has struggled to re-establish authority over its eastern border. Apart from terrorist cells that have made headlines in recent months, some Bedouin tribes have used the power vacuum to exploit migrants on their way to Israel. In 2011 first reports emerged of Sudanese, Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees being tortured by Bedouins in camps in the Sinai to extort ransoms from relatives living abroad. Demands range from $ 2000 to $ 40 000. Organs are removed of refugees, whose relatives are unable or unwilling to pay, often resulting in death.
Monim moved to Cairo, where he and other Darfuris rebuilt the SCC and reported on human rights violations in both Egypt and Sudan. In Cairo, the SCC is one of a number of associations representing the Sudanese population. The "Nuba Mountains Association" advocates for the rights of various ethnic groups in the South Kordofan province on the border between South and North Sudan. Other groups have co-operated with the Egyptian revolutionary movement 6th April, opened centers for the welfare of women, or supported refugees in informal networks. Some members and activists receive remittances of Sudanese living in the West, others continue to work long night hours as security guards of factories or as packers to self-finance their activities. Due to the complicated nature of requesting funds, international donors rarely support refugee organizations directly,.
Incidents of the Sudanese embassy tracking and persecuting Sudanese refugees in Egypt are equally prevalent. "If you leave your house, we'll get you," is a familiar threat in late-night phone calls. A number of refugees from Sudan and Ethiopia have reported that they have been pursued by gangs, who they have reason to suspect were hired by the Sudanese or Ethiopian embassies. Unknown men kidnap the children of Sudanese refugees. Motorcyclists of African origin assault Sudanese on the street and steal their identification papers. These repeating stories make up the chorus of the Sudanese refugee tune in Cairo.
The Egyptian police remain inactive at best. Even in cases of violence between Egyptians, the police rarely interferes, or initiates investigations. Victims usually have to find and deliver the culprit to the police station. An added risk for refugees is that often police do not recognize UNHCR identification cards, and simply tear them up. Racial discrimination of Sudanese also leads to frequent mistreatment and/or abuse by the police. Refugees in Egypt are tolerated by the Egyptian authorities. They are allowed to stay in the country, yet they are neither supported financially, nor do they have access to public schools, hospitals, or permitted to work legally. UNHCR, Egypt, rather than the Egyptian government, recognizes and registers Sudanese, Eritreans, Iraqis, Somalis and Ethiopians seeking asylum. While this grants refugees a limited legal status in Egypt and gives them access to small amounts of financial and medical assistance through refugee aid organizations, the absence of the Egyptian state from the process has resulted in the creation of parallel structures resulting in a dynamics of refugee dependency on the UN agency, which has led Mike Kagan, scholar on refugee law and migration, to proclaim “the State of UNHCR” in a 2011 paper.
Sudan remains a significant grain supplier for Egypt’s ever growing population. 70% of Egyptians rely on subsidized food. The Bread Riots of 1977 led to 79 dead. Sevenfold inflation in 2009 led to more food protests. Since the revolution Egypt has been plagued by a deteriorating economy, continued inflation and a shortage of cooking gas, resulting in periodic riots across the country. Egypt's dependency on Sudan’s support in the conflict over Nile water rights with the Upper Nile countries of Ethiopia, Rwanda and Kenya makes up a further determinant of Sudanese-Egyptian relations. In 2004 Egypt and Sudan signed the "Four Freedoms Agreement," which is vaguely similar to the four freedoms of the EU. Sudanese refugees are specifically excluded from these rights. A number of Sudanese refugees, who had been arrested by Egyptian security were later confronted by the Sudanese embassy with what they had said in interrogations conducted by Egyptian officials. Since the ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood, ideologically close to the ruling National Congress Party in Sudan, as a major player in the Egyptian political system, Sudanese activists speculate on Sudanese-Egyptian security cooperation intensifying beyond shared geopolitical interests, to the detriment of the Sudanese refugee population in Egypt.
Usually, Egyptian security forces pay little attention to refugees living in far-flung shanty-towns , even if observation and infiltration of local and international refugee organizations by the security services until the revolution of 25 January 2011 known as “Amn Dawla,” is systemic. However, in the spring of 2012 a former secret service member, who had worked subsequently at the UNHCR, was sentenced to six months in jail. He had beaten refugees on and in front of UNHCR premises. Other refugees have reported that they had been delivered by the same man, known as Sameh, to the Egyptian security services or the Sudanese embassy. A month later he was acquitted under unclear circumstances.
At the SCC Sudanese refugees learn English and take computer courses. Research of human rights violations in Sudan, intimidation and violence against refugees in Egypt, and increasingly the illegal removal of organs of African refugees in Egypt and organ trafficking in the Sinai make up the SCC's other activities. In January 2009, the Egyptian state security stormed Monim's apartment and arrested him alongside two other members of the SCC. He was accused of being financed by Israel and smuggling Sudanese migrants through the Sinai. Despite the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel in 1979, Israel still serves as a deflecting scapegoat in Egyptian society. After the representative of the Southern Sudanese SPLA in Cairo, Farhmina Menah, advocated heavily with the Egyptian government, Monim was released on condition of shutting down the SCC and stopping all public discussion of the Darfur issue. Members of the SPLA in Cairo were convinced that Amn Dawla was prompted by the Sudanese embassy to arrest Monim.
Monim continued to receive threatening phone calls from the Egyptian police and Sudanese Embassy until January 2010. Then, the SCC released information about an attack by the Egyptian security authorities on 28 refugees, who disappeared in prison without trial. Monim was arrested, his passport taken from him, and after twelve hours of interrogation at the Office of State Security in Giza, released with the threat that his passport would be delivered to the Sudanese embassy, pending his deportation, should he not stop or adjust the SCC's operations to Egyptian security needs. Monim reported several times by phone to the security agencies and was finally left alone until the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution.
With the political upheavals in Egypt, insecurity for refugees increased. Police presence has been scant in shanty towns such as al-Hay al-Asher, Arba w-Nuss or Ardiliwa. Livelihoods of refugees broke down, and UNHCR and Caritas, the only official health provider for refugees in Cairo, remained closed for months. Rumour has it that UN officials were flown to Cyprus, where they were accommodated in a luxury hotel. In the no-man's land near Salloum at the Egyptian-Libyan border around 2000 Sudanese refugees from Libya have lived in deplorable conditions in a camp since the upheavals began. Up to 2,000 refugees demonstrated at the UNHCR office in Egypt for weeks. Two Sudanese women set themselves ablaze in front of the UNHCR office in early 2011. Details were carefully kept from the public.
Concurrently, some refugee activists saw new opportunities to further their political aspirations after the political changes in Egypt in 2011. On July 9th 2011, South Sudan declared independence after 20 years of war against the North. A couple of weeks later about a hundred Sudanese of all ethnic groups demonstrated in front Sudanese Embassy in downtown Cairo. Their threat to the embassy staff "This week we're on the road – next week we'll come inside" and "Omar al-Bashir to Holland!" – referring to sending Sudan’s President to the International Criminal Court, echos less hollow a year later, as students, lawyers, religious figures and labourers demonstrated in Khartoum and other Sudanese cities during the months of June and July 2012 for lower food prices and the fall of the regime. Bashir cracked down on the protests with force. Activists have been disappearing without charge.
The message was clear and the composition of the demonstrators from Darfur, Western and Southern Nuba, the Northern Nubians, and South Sudanese in Cairo, coupled with a less fragmented movement in Sudan itself, suggest a continued struggle against Bashir. Connections with the Egyptian youth movement, especially with the "April 6th" movement have developed. In this atmosphere. Monim continues to organize seminars and participates in workshops on the International Criminal Court and the genocide in Darfur at the American University in Cairo.
In 2011 renewed fighting broke out in Sudan's Nuba Mountains, adjacent to Southern Sudan. During the war between the Southern Sudanese SPLA and the regime in Khartoum, which started in the 1980s, the African tribes of the Nuba had fought on the side of the South. The boundaries of the new country South Sudan, however, follows British borders of 1956 and runs south of the Nuba Mountains, leaving the Nuba tribes on the territory of the rather Arab north. The Sudanese government has been employing Antonov air planes to attack villages and fields in the Nuba Mountains. Internet and telephone lines were cut and few journalists were allowed to enter the area, in an effort to prevent new atrocities to surface. 50,000 Nuba were displaced within weeks. Ryan Boyette from Nuba Reports, a citizen journalism platform in Southern Kordofan, has reported 81 Antonov bombings since September 2012. Nuba activists, such as Jalila Khamis Koko, arrested on September 15 on six separate charges, two of which carry the death penalty, have come under concerted attack from the NISS since 2011.
The unresolved border demarcation around Abyei, popularly known as the "Jerusalem of Sudan" because of its ethnic, religious and agricultural complexity, led to further conflict between the Khartoum and Southern Sudan in the fall of 2011. The south has been supporting the African Denka Nagok tribes, who carry out agriculture in Abyei. The north has put its weight behind the Arab Misseria tribe, which grazes its herds in the region several months a year. Sudanese observers, however, put the crux of the conflict with both sides vying for the large gas reserves in the area, both sides instrumentalizing African residents and Arab nomads. The grand total of all internally displaced and refugees of the Sudanese conflict since 2011 stands at upwards from 500.000.
The Egyptian revolution has been progressing in twists and turns. Until August 2011 some 12,000 activists disappeared in military prisons without charges. Human rights organizations such as the Hisham Mubarak Law Center were stormed and ransacked by the military at the beginning of the Revolution. Intimidation of civil society in Egypt continued under the radar, until a series of U.S. and German organizations were raided by government officials in December 2011. Harsh criticism has been voiced by academics, the Nubian community and women activists against the constituent assembly, charged with drafting a new constitution to replace the one Anwar al-Sadat had tailored for himself in 1971, as merely replicating the protection of those in power, rather than establishing a legal system guaranteeing rights and freedoms as called for in the January 25th revolution. Refugee rights have not surfaced in the constitutional debate.
In January 2012 the SCC and Monim were again targeted by Egyptian national security. Once more allegations of illegally receiving money from abroad to disturb Egyptian peace and order were raised. The web portal Sudan Online reports on its Web site that the Sudanese Ambassador in Cairo, Kamal Hassan Aly, had demanded the Egyptian security authorities to arrest and deport 30 members of the SCC to the Sudan. Monim and his newly wedded wife went into hiding for four months.
Meanwhile the continuing conflict in Darfur intensified. The few media reports are limited to the border conflict between the new South and the old Sudan. In January 2012 a paper circulated at the UN in New York and Geneva, which accused the UNAMID mission in Darfur of being intimidated by the regime in Khartoum to research and report on battles and human rights violations incompletely. After meeting with Darfur rebel leaders from the Sudanese Revolutionary Front, SLM, JEM and Minni Minawi in Uganda in September 2012, Ambassador Dean Smith, US Special envoy for Darfur, in an interview with Radio Dabanga noted that the security situation in Darfur had deteriorated when compared to 2011. Smith sharply criticized the Sudanese army for bombing civilian areas in Darfur.
Rebel leaders have been refusing to negotiate with the central government, claiming that the conflicts in South Kordofan, Darfur, and Blue Nile State and elsewhere in Sudan are connected and that the solution to all of them is the toppling of Omar Bashir and his regime. With the secession of the South, Attempts at unifying local and regional opposition forces in the North have been underway. In late 2010 Abdel-Wahid al-Nur, founder and leader of the Darfurian "Sudan Liberation Movement" (SLM), returned from exile in France. An alliance between the JEM and the northern SPLA in the Nuba Mountains had been propagated, with the goal to overthrow the regime of Omar al-Bashir and to “establish a secular, democratic, liberal and federalist state." Student demonstrations, triggered by rising gasoline and food prices, that broke out at Khartoum University and other cities of the country, quickly adopted similar demands. “The people demand the fall of the regime.”
On 6 May 2012, Monim was arrested by the police and brought to Qanater prison, north of Cairo. Friends were not able to establish contact. Refugee relief organizations were informed, but prevented further information from surfacing to avoid jeopardizing negotiations for his release, or getting tangled up in political cross-fire. Other SCC members like Bashir Suleiman feared that Monim would be secretly shipped to Sudan. Suleiman recounted the story of a former member of the SCC, who was murdered upon his return to Sudan, and assumed that two other returnees are similarly being threatened by the Sudanese intelligence services. According to the UN refugee convention, signed and ratified by Egypt, deportation of a recognized refugee to a country is illegal, if there is a reasonable ground to believe that persecution will continue upon arrival.
Monim's wife received threatening phone calls from the Egyptian secret service. Nothing further was known about Monim's condition. Modelled after the online advocacy for Egyptian activist Khaled Said, who was kidnapped in Alexandria from an internet cafe by the Egyptian security forces and tortured to death in 2010, Sudanese refugees spread a picture of Monim on Facebook, entitled “We are all Monim Soliman". A news clipping from UNAMID in Sudan in June 2012 reported that Monim Soliman Atrun had been resettled to Norway. At the time of his release Monim and another thirteen recognized refugees from Sudan, all from Darfur or the Nuba Mountains, Somalia, the Congo, Somalia and Sri Lanka were languishing, some for more than two years, in Qanater with unclear charges. In early September three Eritrean refugees met the same fate.
As the euphoria of last spring receded, new political forces emerged and old ones beat back. Little has changed for refugees in the region. The battle between repressive regimes, regional rebel groups and urban opposition movements continues to displace and exile thousands in Sudan and the Horn of Africa. Countries like Egypt or Libya, themselves engaged in multiple tug-of-wars over national and religious identities, entrenched tribal or class power structures, economic resources and long-held privileges, are of their own accord unlikely to master the cause of refugees any time soon.
Rather, despite the European Court for Human Rights earlier this year ruling against the expulsion of 24 migrants by the Italian navy back to Libya on high seas, Italy is busy patching up new anti-migration agreements with the newly elected Libyan government. 1500 people trying to cross the Mediterranean died in 2011. In Israel, the interior minister and leader of the orthodox Shas party Eli Yishai has announced that North Sudanese have until October 15th of this year to repatriate voluntarily, and that “their lives will be made bitter until they leave.” The Israeli army has been reported to patrol 100 meters into Egyptian territory to keep out migrants. In response to Israeli human rights groups condemning an incident in September were a group of refugees was left in the torching heat on Israeli territory, yet on the other side of the border fence, the foreign ministry announced that it has “no legal obligation to let in anyone beyond the fence” and that “there has been no determination by any international body according to which Sudanese or Eritrean citizens are persecuted or that their lives are in danger in Egypt.”
Durable solutions in the form of repatriation to their home countries or local integration into Egyptian society are illusionary for refugees. Out of a population of over 100.000 recognized refugees, UNHCR Egypt referred 1550 refugees for resettlement to a third country in 2011. Western countries are hesitant to increase resettlement programmes fearing that this would create “pull factors” for migrants to come to Europe. This is mirrored by German interior minister Friedrich contradicting the German constitutional courts sentence of raising financial sustenance levels for asylum seekers to what is in line with article 1 of Germany’s basic law, “the dignity of a human being is untouchable.” It would create incentives for more migrants to come to Germany, the logic goes. The appeal of Cecilia Malmström, EU commissioner for home affairs, in an opinion article in the Times of Malta, titled “Refugees: How Europe Failed”, to “stay true to our ideals of openness, tolerance and solidarity” appears to have gone unheard. In Egypt the UNHCR employs the term “managing expectations”, as a way to mollify refugees and itself.
Mike Kagan argues that the UNHCR and Egypt should share responsibilities when it comes to finding durable solutions for refugees. Every refugee resettled through the UNHCR per year, should be matched by Egypt granting permanent residence to another one. Aside from how this would play out practically in the Egyptian legal system, and which dynamics this would set in place in refugee communities, first a sense of shared responsibility for those falling between the cracks would need to arise. This would also entail a European realization that the reasons for refugees to leave their countries do not disappear with closing borders ever more vigorously. If there is a lesson to be learned for Europe from the Arab revolutions, it should be that human rights violations should play a more prominent role when dealing with regimes in Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and elsewhere. Furthermore, democratic Europe should seize the opportunity presented by the upheavals in the region and replace its unsustainable and at times brutal refugee regime with one that creates mutually beneficial solutions for both sides of the Mediterranean.. This should decrease the number of refugees opting to take the perilous route through the Sinai to Israel, which, regardless, is further writhing away on its democratic nature and in complete denial of its history, when expelling genocide survivors. Finally, a complete overhaul of UNHCR Egypt’s approach to refugees, administration, staffing and a thorough investigation into its dealings with the Egyptian security apparatus would be a prerequisite for UNHCR to be up to the task of being at once a credible arbiter and advocate of refugees and to spearhead significant improvements of refugee lives in Egypt. Lacking such changes, refugees will continue to be forced to employ whatever means at their disposal in their fight for survival.
As Monim and his family live to see better days in Norway, Taha, a Darfuri refugee, has a few friends over to celebrate his return one Thursday eve. After failing to pay ransom for a group of six Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees held hostage by a group of Bedouin human traffickers, the Bedouins kidnapped and tortured him with electric shocks for three weeks. His body weakened from previous assaults and torture in Cairo and Sudan, made his captors decide after consulting with a doctor that his organs were worthless for the market. In the middle of the night they dumped him, naked and covered in blood, on a suburban road. After five days in hospital he returned to his family, with his back and chest covered in hand-long pink scars. Joyously jumping on their fathers lap, his young ones lift his shirt to peek at his scarred body. As he shakes back and forth, he says “I have seen sad days.”