Al-Ahram Weekly Online
20 - 26 December 2001
Issue No.565
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

In the dark valley

Faced with a growing and politically-loaded African refugee crisis, Egypt struggles to accommodate those who seek refuge. Gamal Nkrumah writes on the challenge and the hope

The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies recently warned that over half of the world's 60,000 war victims in the last year were killed in Africa south of the Sahara. Conflicts -- both civil wars and border disputes between countries -- are among the fundamental push factors that drive people away from their homelands. The general state of war has also damaged social and economic implications, which act as added incentives for people to flee their countries of origin.

Egypt, with its strategic geographical location on the crossroads linking Africa, Asia and Europe, attracts a large number of refugees who pass through the country on their way to resettlement countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and Western Europe. While not the final destination of choice for most refugees, Egypt is nevertheless a country where many African refugees -- especially Sudanese and those fleeing conflicts in the Horn of Africa -- prefer to stop while their papers are processed. Most hope to be permanently resettled in countries further afield. Egypt has also increasingly attracted economic migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, many of whom apply for refugee status once they enter the country.

African refugee community in Egypt
Community events organised by the African refugee community in Egypt (photo: Khaled El-Fiqi); learning new skills away from home (photo: courtesy UNHCR); and what of the future? (photo: courtesy UNHCR)

For decades, refugees were not permitted to work in Egypt, but many did survive by eking out a precarious existence through illegal and irregular employment opportunities. Unemployment, currently running at 20 per cent, means that Egypt cannot afford to absorb a large number of economic migrants and asylum seekers. Despite the country's economic and demographic realities, however, the Egyptian government has been sympathetic to the difficult conditions of refugees.

In 1998, a refugee identity card was introduced and stamped with a residence permit by the authorities. While a major step, there are still significant problems. The tiny slip of paper can be easily lost or destroyed and all the relevant information on the slips are in English -- a language most Egyptian policemen are unfamiliar with.

The residence permit stamped on the refugee identity card by the Ministry of Interior states that the holder is not permitted to work, but Egyptian officials were at pains to explain that such restrictions have been lifted. Refugees are now permitted to work for six months, after which their work permits are renewed. However, work permits are only granted official refugees accepted by the UNHCR. Those individuals turned down for refugee status by the UNHCR are not permitted to work legally. Nevertheless, many do.

Asylum seekers denied refugee status are loath to return to the countries they left behind. In many cases, their home countries will have changed beyond recognition and many are emotionally and psychologically disinclined to return after traumatic experiences. Others just want to move on to greener pastures.

The real problems, however, run much deeper than this. Finding gainful employment is a refugee's most pressing need. Women are relatively better off, as it is easier for them to find work as domestic servants, baby sitters or caring for elderly people. Refugee mothers are often forced to leave their own kids at home to fend for themselves while working as nannies for wealthy Egyptian families.

Prostitution and illegal alcohol production is rife among refugee populations. Overcrowded conditions and poor diets lead to disease and malnutrition. Illegal refugees living in Egypt do not have access to Egypt's national medical services. The fortunate few are able to find health care services with humanitarian or religious organisations.

Ultimately, these refugees fall through the cracks in the system, unable to move on to another settlement country and afraid to return home. They cannot afford the exorbitant fees or provide the hard currency needed to complete their education at Egyptian universities or other institutions of higher learning.

Resettlement in a rich country is an option available to comparatively few fortunate individuals, especially at times of large refugee flows. There are no independent status determination procedures and the distinction between political refugees and economic migrants remains murky. Bereft of support systems and armed with survival instincts some resort to petty crime. One of the sorriest aspects of the refugee crisis in Egypt is that some refugee communities sink into the shady criminal underworld.

How many refugees and economic migrants resort to crime and the falsification of their identities? How many are caught or killed in the process? Many of these questions are probably unanswerable, but officials, NGOs and church groups are all betting against the odds. They are trying to reach those who still hope against hope.

Al-Nadim Centre for the Rehabilitation of Torture Victims is one such project that seeks to address the special needs of refugees prone to psychological disorders. A number of refugees in Egypt were child soldiers from war-torn nations like Sudan, Somalia, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

It is the Cairo-based churches, however, that have emerged as one of the refugees' main benefactors, especially after a decrease in UNHCR funding left the agency in the lurch. More importantly, church-based NGOs do not distinguish between "accepted" or "rejected" asylum seekers. However, their services are restricted to Christian refugees, like the southern Sudanese. They do not extend to northern Sudanese, Somalis or other Muslim refugees. While there are support schemes for the southern Sudanese, there is no equivalent educational support system for the Somalis and northern Sudanese.

Christian Africans are at an advantage because church groups are the most active in social welfare, education and health services, notes Barbara Bond, head of the newly established refugee studies department at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Bond pointed out that the majority of refugees in Egypt are Muslim, coming from northern Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia and also from several predominantly Muslim countries in West Africa. But most of the help available is organised by Christian church-based groups. "While a considerable number of southern Sudanese Christians [receive help], their northern Muslim compatriots and Somalis -- who form a substantial portion of the refugee population -- are excluded from these services," Bond told the Weekly.

Churches acknowledge that they focus on the Christian refugee population, primarily because of sensitivities regarding proselytising in Egypt. "Every human being is valuable -- both Muslim and Christian. We can work together. We aim at self-actualisation for the refugees. We do not just focus on hand-outs," explained Reverend Dave Petrescue, senior pastor of the Maadi Community Church. "We consider it our responsibility, and an opportunity, to minister to those who come seeking refuge. In all honesty it is a tremendous task. Sometimes we wonder how in the world we can make a dent."

The churches have been trying to help by organising cottage industries for needlework and basketry, which many women can do at home, but marketing is difficult and the income is low. Reverend Petrescue said that his church has two schools, one for adult refugees and the other for children of refugees.

The Sacred Heart Church in the Sakakini district runs a school for 1,000 Sudanese refugee children at kindergarten, primary and secondary levels, which follows the Egyptian school curriculum. There are also other churches who run schools for Sudanese refugee children in Maadi, a suburb just south of Cairo, and in Zeitun, to the north of the city.

All Saints Cathedral has an impressive medical programme for refugees, many of whom are in desperate penury. Many churches support craft centres and dressmaking workshops. A micro-credit pilot project for refugee women was turned down, but Egyptian authorities have eased restrictions on issuing work permits for refugees.

It is especially important to find means of supporting refugees at this time because the money available for African refugees in Egypt is diminishing, while the actual number of refugees in the country is rapidly increasing. According to a recently- released UNHCR study by Stefan Sperl, senior lecturer at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), between 1997 and 2001 average expenditure per refugee each year fell from $500 to $290, which amounts to a reduction of 42 per cent. To compound matters, those rejected by the UNHCR often continue to live in Egypt sharing the scanty resources of "officially" recognised refugees.

Bond's forthcoming book Rights in Exile: Janus-Faced Humanitarians focuses on refugees in Kenya and Uganda. In Cairo for two years now, Bond has made great strides in the provision of legal assistance to refugees -- a sorely needed service that was missing from the Cairo refugee scene. "The 'bush telegraph' operated among the refugees and they quickly found their way to my flat," Bond explains. She was inundated with requests for help.

A British lawyer who specialises in refugee affairs was enlisted and the project was officially sponsored by the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights (EOHR). Dozens of Egyptian interns also help. "The refugees themselves are a great source of support to each other," Bond says, stressing the importance of legal aid provision for the 70 per cent of refugees rejected by the UNHCR. "It is critically important to provide legal aid, since there is no proper independent refugee status determination at present," Bond noted.

"Most people who get accepted get resettled. My concern is about the 70 per cent rejected by the UNHCR who cannot go home and are here illegally," Bond said. "Most of these people stay on after the UNHCR rejects them. Few are actually deported. Egypt misses out, as it can't count the real numbers of refugees it is hosting and, therefore, it can't demand international aid," Bond said. Egyptian employers hesitate to recruit skilled staff who are working illegally. Some have been fined and warned by the police to dismiss their illegal workers.

Speaking on the housing problems of refugees, Bond noted that the cost of accommodation for refugees is considerably higher than for Egyptian nationals as refugees have to pay for rented accommodation in furnished apartments. A windowless room in a dwelling under construction in one of the slums on the outskirts of Cairo costs $20 a month. In Cairo itself, accommodation is much more expensive and refugees are obliged to pool their resources and share flats. "Their illegal status slaps them in the face every time they set foot outside their flats," Bond explained. The luckier ones kill time until their refugee status is established and they are accepted by Western nations.

Bond pointed out that refugees do receive support from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), a UN affiliate, but says that despite all the good intentions of officials and charities trying to juggle the numbers, the refugee situation is fast deteriorating. By the end of 2000, the number of registered Sudanese refugees totalled 2,833. With a backlog of over 10,000 people, the problem is growing fast. A large percentage of rejected UNHCR applicants -- over 15,000 in the last three years -- have not left Egypt and continue to reside in the country as illegal aliens.

Between 60 and 70 per cent of Sudanese asylum seekers have their application for refugee status rejected and are liable to arrest and deportation, though they often share accommodation with successful refugee applicants. The Coptic Church distributes a modest monthly stipend for the poorest of the poor living in Cairo's slums -- it amounts to roughly $3.

Education remains among the most pressing of the refugees' demands. The vast majority of the refugees are excluded from the Egyptian educational system. Churches and predominantly church-affiliated NGOs cater to refugees' educational needs. Great strides have been made, but much remains to be done.

The African Hope Learning Centre, which caters exclusively to African refugees in Cairo, is run by the Maadi Community Church and provides a fine example of the critical contribution made by religious groups in the field of education. Norma Smith, chairwoman of the centre's board of directors, told the Weekly that there was a great need among the refugee population for an English-language school with a Christian curriculum. "As the refugees had no money to enrol in expensive English-language schools, the Maadi Community Church's Refugee and Embrace the Needy Team set up the African Hope Learning Centre," Smith explained.

Bertram Anyaegbudike, assistant property manager of the church, taught at the African Hope school, where he was given a stipend. A Nigerian national who came to Egypt three years ago, Anyaegbudike also taught at Saint Andrews Church school on a voluntary basis. Anyaegbudike, along with fellow Nigerian Pastor Ezekiel Edosomwan, has had ample opportunity to work with the refugees.

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