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

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

Open arms, tight-fisted

(from top) the plight of African refugees: long journeys and uncertain futures; UNHCR fresh water project: vital help
"Egyptians have always welcomed refugees with open arms since time immemorial," declares Egypt's Ambassador to Ukraine, Mona Khashaba. "Since the days of [the Biblical] Joseph and his brethren to the time of the Holy Family, Egypt was regarded as a safe haven -- a country where refugees fleeing famine, war and political instability can find security and sustenance. The Qur'an specifically enjoins Muslims to enter Egypt assuredly and without fear."

For the past couple of years, Khashaba has been the chief Foreign Ministry official overseeing refugees in Egypt. Recently posted to Ukraine, Khashaba was preparing for her departure to Kiev at the time of this interview. Speaking of the numerous organisations dealing with refugees seeking political asylum in Egypt, Khashaba told the Weekly that in addition to the Ministry of the Interior and other Egyptian government departments, she worked closely with such organisations as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and UN- affiliated bodies like the International Organisation for Migration.

Egypt was a pioneer in catering to refugee populations in Africa from the 1960s onwards and Khashaba notes that the government strives to deal with asylum seekers and migratory movements in a way that upholds basic humanitarian principles. Today, Cairo accommodates one of the five largest urban refugee populations in the world, the vast majority of them from Sudan. Somalis make up the next largest group, followed by Ethiopians, Eritreans, and refugees from Africa's Great Lakes region. A growing stream of West African refugees are also seeking asylum in Egypt, putting further stress on Egyptian authorities responsible for their welfare.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1951 UN convention related to the status of refugees. Khashaba notes that Egypt was among the member countries that participated in drafting the 1951 Geneva Convention, as well as the 1969 OAU Convention on Refugees. She added, however, that Egypt does not always receive the assistance it needs from wealthy countries in this regard. Contrary to the OAU convention, many wealthy countries in Western Europe maintain that refugees fleeing war and persecution are not automatically eligible for formal refugee status. UN budget allocations to Egypt for refugee welfare programmes have fallen twice by a total of 20 per cent in 1999 and 2000.

Khashaba pointed out that status determination procedures are often lengthy, fastidious and complex. The bulk of African refugees, though they may have sought Egypt only as a transit point, end up remaining in the country -- many of them illegally, if the UNHCR does not award them refugee status. Without assistance or official status -- and even, in many cases, with the help provided by charity and aid organisations -- most refugees have a hard time making ends meet and some resort to criminal activities to survive. Khashaba says that while the UNHCR receives and grants refugee status to some 30 per cent of asylum seekers in Egypt, the other 70 per cent are technically the responsibility of the Egyptian government.

"There is no legal framework or national legislation in Egypt governing the granting of asylum," explains Khashaba. "We focus on implementing the existing 1951 UN and the 1969 OAU conventions. The Egyptian government cooperates very closely with the UNHCR to ensure adequate protection for refugees and people in need of international protection." Khashaba stressed, however, that Egypt is still a developing country with limited resources, saying that the government has legitimate concerns about the social and economic cost of receiving, housing and providing for refugees.

It is for this reason that a joint committee composed of members from various ministries and entities dealing with refugee problems was established in Egypt "to find the ways and means to develop a mechanism for determining refugee status," says Khashaba. "A number of conclusions were reached and the Cairo office of the UNHCR was accordingly notified."

Khashaba spoke of an "electronic network" between the UNHCR and the ministries of interior and foreign affairs to guarantee acceleration of basic data and information on refugees and asylum seekers. Yet the fact remains that with all the good intentions of the officials concerned, all relevant bodies must still juggle their spending requests.

Like most UN officials, Egyptian authorities work on the premise that voluntary repatriation is the ideal solution, but this is not always feasible -- especially when refugees face persecution or lack personal security back home. Resettlement countries are often loath to accept desperately poor, illiterate refugees with pressing and complicated medical problems. Instead, they prefer educated asylum seekers who can better integrate in their new surroundings.

Practical problems abound. Khashaba warned of the absence of "a clear cut mechanism" for generating the financial resources needed for rehabilitation and welfare provision. Refugees need massive financial assistance and Egypt has little to offer financially. Because of this, Khashaba advocates the establishment of a "special fund" for financing voluntary repatriation of refugees, independent of the regular budget of the UNHCR.

Resettlement in a rich country is an option available only to a few fortunate individuals, especially during times of large refugee flows. This was the case with the exodus of hundreds of thousands of refugees escaping heightened conflict in chronic war zones like southern Sudan, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and the Great Lakes region of Africa generally.

Distinguishing between economic migrants and genuine refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries is no easy task. Many economic migrants pretend to be refugees or try to acquire refugee status so that they can find new homes in Western countries, where the prospects of employment are better and their children will get a better education. Economic migrants, however, generally enjoy the protection of the government of their country of origin, meaning they can return, while refugees do not.

In practice, distinguishing between the two categories is often very hard among citizens of poor and under-developed countries. In many cases it is impossible to tell whether the individual or family concerned faces a genuine threat to their safety in their country of origin or if they are just hoping to improve their chances in life. People ordinarily prefer a familiar cultural and social environment, and therefore many prefer to stay as close as possible to their countries of origin, but those seeking to better their economic situation might be prepared to travel far.

One of the sorriest aspects of dealing with refugees and asylum seekers is that for most, there is no end to their plight at hand. Refugees are treated with contempt for crying out for charity. Individual asylum seekers have often had traumatic experiences. They hail from shattered communities bereft of most of the social amenities and welfare programmes. "The ones who make it to Egypt are better off than the ones left behind," says Khashaba.

Since the establishment of a refugee unit at the Foreign Ministry, efforts have intensified to sensitise Egyptian diplomats and Foreign Ministry officials to the special problems of refugees and the challenges that face the countries which receive them. There are currently seven Egyptian diplomats enrolled at the recently-established department for refugee studies at the American University in Cairo (AUC). Another five were sent to the University of Oxford in England for further studies. Diplomats are also encouraged to participate in awareness campaigns and are encouraged to deal with the refugee crisis from a human perspective.

While the Egyptian media largely overlooks the subject, the Egyptian government has quietly been taking steps to tackle the refugee problem in the country. The media blackout did nothing to prepare Egyptians for the influx of refugees, estimated to officially number over 7,700, most of them African, but also including Afghans and people from the Balkans. Unofficial figures are as much as five times higher. The media is silent largely because otherwise, it would mean breaching the taboo keeping Egyptians from bringing up this issue for fear of broaching the touchy topic of race relations. Moreover, it is not a topic that the public is particularly concerned about.

The humanitarian efforts and programmes of the UN agencies and the Egyptian authorities alike are said to have improved little over the years. Instead they have often been drubbed by refugees for being irresolute and inept in challenging the status quo. They focus on "essential requirements" for those "unable to meet minimum needs".

Nonetheless, the number of benefits have increased substantially in the past couple of years, says Kashaba. Owing to a special Presidential Decree in 2000, many refugee children can now enroll freely at Egyptian schools at the primary level. Restrictions on employment have also been partially lifted.

International apprehension about the prospects of resettlement for refugees worldwide is growing, especially in light of unresolved conflicts and a failure to address many of the root causes of conflict situations in Africa south of the Sahara. The grim international climate is aggravated by the refusal of Western nations to open the floodgates and permit larger numbers of asylum seekers -- a situation exacerbated in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks in the US.

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