Egypt Is Uneasy Stop For Sudanese Refugees

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 27, 2006

CAIRO -- On a dirt lane in the poor Arba wa Nus neighborhood, Malles Tonga, a Sudanese refugee, spoke loudly about the brutality of Egyptian police and blamed President Hosni Mubarak for their behavior.

Suddenly, an Egyptian merchant emerged from a nearby dry-goods store, shouted an Egyptian slur for black Africans and yelled: "If you don't like it here, go home!"

The use of the expletive exemplifies the plight of Sudanese who come to Egypt as refugees: They fear going home, but the welcome mat in Egypt, always thin of resources and tolerance, is almost threadbare.

The situation of Sudanese in Egypt brings to light the special difficulties refugees face when they flee a war-ravaged and impoverished land for another poor country. Egypt is in many ways an inhospitable place for its own citizens. In Arba wa Nus, Egyptians share with the Sudanese arrivals the neighborhood's open sewers, dusty alleys, lack of plumbing and precarious chockablock housing.

But dark-skinned Sudanese Christians stand out among the Egyptians, typically lighter-skinned Muslim Arabs. Human rights workers say the Sudanese are subject to taunts, discrimination and violence.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has registered about 24,000 Sudanese refugees here, but independent observers estimate there are hundreds of thousands. Unlike in some other African countries, Sudanese in Egypt are not granted blanket U.N. refugee status, which would open the possibility of resettlement.

Under a bilateral arrangement, Egypt permits Sudanese to live and work in the country, but U.N. approval for asylum results only after a laborious interview process.

A breaking point for many Sudanese came on Dec. 30, when hundreds of riot police stomped through a makeshift camp in central Cairo to clear it of 2,500 refugees, trampling or beating to death 28 people, among them women and children, according to witnesses.

Few outside witnesses saw the melee, and accounts in this article were pieced together from Sudanese refugees. In late September, a few refugees had gathered at Mustafa Mahmoud park in Mohandessin, an upper-middle-class neighborhood, to demand full refugee status from UNHCR, with the possibility that they could be resettled somewhere in Europe, the United States or another wealthy country.

The refugees were worried that they would be forced to return to Sudan. Many had fled southern Sudan, the scene of a 21-year civil war that pitted black African separatists, most of them adherents of traditional beliefs or Christianity, against a Sudanese government run by Muslim, Arabic-speaking northerners who had tried to impose Islamic law on the country. A peace agreement was signed in January 2005, but the refugees reject the notion that repatriation to Sudan is either safe or viable. Roads are still mined, villages are bare and violence flares on occasion. A separate civil war rages in the Darfur region of western Sudan.

The number of refugees involved in the protest grew, unusual given Egypt's ban on any gathering of more than five people. The demonstrators set up plastic tents and formed their own security contingent.

Riot police began to gather on the night of Dec. 29. Big blue troop trucks surrounded the square and officers aimed water hoses at the demonstrators. After midnight, with the desert cold gripping the city, water was poured on the camp. Some of the police yelled, "Give it to them. They need a shower," witnesses said.

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