CAIRO: A preliminary report detailing the forced breakup of a Sudanese refugee sit-in at a park in Mohandiseen says protesters were given ample warning by security officials to leave peacefully before the incident turned violent.
Last December, police fired water cannons late into the night on the more than 2,000 people gathered in the Moustafa Mahmoud Mosque park, saying that they had violated Egyptian laws by demonstrating there and were to be removed to a new location. The report, released by the American University in Cairo’s department of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies (FMRS), added that security officials gave protest representatives the option to load women and children on buses safely should the men insist to stay.
Numerous accounts have said, however, that the group had in fact decided to let the women and children go, but by then, riot police had stormed the camp, batons raised. Twenty-seven people were killed, 11 of them children, many of whom are believed to have been trampled in the chaos.
Demonstrators gathered on Sept. 30 for a peaceful protest outside of the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They presented to UNHCR a list of demands, most of them dealing directly with a reevaluation of their refugee status or relocation process. Tired of local discrimination, frustrated with bureaucratic neglect and fearful of returning to their war-torn homeland, the protest camp in many ways provided for these people a safe-haven, free from a society that rebuffs them.
“They’d say in their demands, don’t think of sending me back and don’t ask me to locally integrate, explains Fateh Azzam, director of FMRS. “Also, with regard to interviews for refugees, they wanted personal interviews that did not tie them to the region they are from, say Darfur or wherever. They wanted UNHCR to talk to them on an individual basis.
Many of the refugees spilled into Egypt only in the later years of the Sudanese civil war. This presented a problem, as the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention does not recognize victims of civil war. The African Convention, signed later, did incorporate civil war in its assessment, allowing for more refugees to be recognized.
“The problem is that resettlement countries only recognize the 1951 Convention, not the African Convention, adds Azzam. “So the chances of resettlement did not increase.
UNHCR firmly maintained that the majority of those gathered near their Cairo office were not legitimate refugee or asylum card holders, but rather, had taken refuge in Egypt for a number of reasons outside the jurisdiction of UNHCR.
“It’s just amazing when everyone says Sudanese refugees, said Damtew Dessalegne, UNHCR’s assistant regional representative in a previous interview with The Daily Star Egypt. “Where is the evidence? My estimation is there are between one to three million Sudanese in Egypt. The ones who are registered are 14,000 refugees and another nine to 10,000 asylum seekers. It is not a refugee problem. It is a mix of economic migration, development, poverty, whatever.
In a survey taken by FMRS during the protest, however, at least 75 percent of those camped out near the Moustafa Mahmoud Mosque did in fact possess either the blue or yellow refugee or asylum card. Moreover, following the raid by Egyptian security forces, the government said it had taken 2,170 people into custody. Of those Sudanese protesters removed from the park, all yellow and blue card holders were released within days. Only 650 people remained.
“Eventually, everyone was released except for 169 people deemed by UNHCR to be not of concern, says Azzam.
UNHCR offered the displaced refugees a one-time housing allowance and help with elementary school education, though they had already provided assistance for education. For those who qualified, UNHCR offered a flight to Juba at the organization’s expense. In response, the protesters accepted the offer for housing and education, but refused forced repatriation and reiterated their demands for individual status interviews.
Meanwhile, according to the report, the Egyptian government stated it had come under repeated pressure from UNHCR to hear the demands of protesters. It was allegedly explained to the protesters that resettlement was an option under the condition that once you received an interview, you were never to return to the park.
“Once they got an interview, they would disappear into the jungle, describes Azzam. “They would not come back and give the group feedback. That was uncomfortable to many. They did not want to lose the collective power they had in the park by being taken away in groups.
When they rejected the offer, negotiations with UNHCR ceased. A Jan. 2 session of the People’s Assembly revealed Egyptian authorities intervened, in large part, due to the fact that many UNHCR representatives felt their lives were threatened.
The session, under Egypt’s State Minister of Legal Affairs, Mofid Shaheb, further addressed concerns surrounding the use of gas pipes to cook, the use of violence to convince protesters to stay and the spread of pollution and epidemic diseases such as AIDS; Giza’s director of curative medicine himself testified to the deteriorating health of protestors. Finally, the People’s Assembly stated that local residents complained they could not leave their homes at night in fear of theft or attack. The government adamantly defends its decision to raid the camp, saying the move was not in violation of any regulations or international laws.
Members of FMRS admit the protesters had been warned for weeks that should they stay, their lives were at risk. Although this is the preliminary report, FMRS has presented a list of concerns and recommendations in light of the mayhem. First, the transport of corpses has been close to impossible. Despite an offer by UNHCR to give $1,000 in burial expenses for each victim, bodies were not permitted to leave Cairo International Airport for Khartoum.
“The peace agreement is just ink on paper, a refugee attending the release of the report bellowed. “People have been crying! What are you going to do about the bodies? What are the human rights groups going to do to take care of us? Nobody is doing anything to help us!
Poor access to important information is cited as another major flaw in the system. “There must be a way for everyone to have access, insisted Azzam. “There must be places where one knows he can get access to services, to find out where things are, where people are, where bodies are.
Finally, FMRS notes poor attitudinal communication on the part of UNHCR. “Many of us were predicting this could end in disaster, but no one put an emergency plan, not UNHCR, not NGOs, and not the Egyptian government, adds Azzam. “That is a major point of failure.
Azzam admits the preliminary report is subdued in its attacks against any group in particular, but says there will be a major element of finger pointing upon its conclusion. The final report from FMRS is due out by the end of the month.