No Safe Haven

CAIRO, Egypt — The violence against Sudanese in Egypt in December has magnified the dilemma they face. Fearing for their lives, they fled their war-torn native land to seek refuge in the neighboring country, yet feel unwelcome and endangered there.

At the same time, they distrust the peace promises of Sudan’s militantly Islamic government and consequently are unwilling to return home.

Just before dawn on Dec. 30, Egyptian security forces raided the site of a three-month sit-in by Sudanese refugees. The demonstrators’ key demand was resettlement to a third country on the grounds that Sudanese in Egypt “are faced daily with discrimination, violence and violations of their human rights.”

More than 4,000 baton-wielding police outnumbered the 3,000 or so Sudanese. ‘‘The Egyptian police appeared to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut when they broke up the Sudanese sit-in,” said John Eibner, executive director of Christian Solidarity International, USA. ‘‘The death of at least 27 people during this police action and the unaccountability of the authorities speak volumes about the state of human rights in Egypt,” he said.

Women, children and elderly were among the casualties.

Nearly 2,500 Sudanese ended up in prison. Of those most recently released, 104 children and 77 women had been jailed for 20 days.

There are approximately 40,000 Sudanese refugees and asylum-seekers in Cairo. About half of those are considered illegal because their application to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees for refugee status was rejected. Since the signing of Sudan’s peace agreement in January 2005, war-related resettlement programs have ended.

Until the December incident, about 200 Sudanese refugees were coming into Cairo every week, where they join the urban poor in competing for limited resources and jobs. They are unable to access work, state education and national health care on the same basis as nationals. So they find themselves on the margins of society and unable to integrate locally.

Only five or six individuals each month had opted for voluntary repatriation to Sudan, according to a report from Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Cairo, which has served the Sudanese refugee population there since 1984. More than half of the refugees are Christian.

Refugee Ministry

Sacred Heart specializes in education for the Sudanese, operating four primary schools and one secondary school. Total enrollment is about 2,000. All the teachers are Sudanese.

In addition, three Comboni priests celebrate Masses in Arabic, English and French, and provide Christian educational programs for all age groups. There are women’s groups and youth activities. They also offer social and cultural programs for the wider refugee community from all faiths.

Following the Dec. 30 violence, a clinic was set up at the church, with the help of volunteers, sisters and other religious congregations. In the first two days, approximately 700 people were examined, about 100 of whom were referred to nearby hospitals. With the help of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, 1,200 blankets were distributed.

Some 200 people lodged in the church for a few nights until they received financial help from the United Nations to find new accommodations after being displaced from their squatter camp in the violence.

The Sudanese in Egypt “have lost hope. They are angry,” said Father Simon Mbuthia, pastor of Sacred Heart. “They feel deceived by everything, everybody.’’

Three weeks after the attack, the bodies of the dead had not yet been released. ‘‘This even prolongs the suffering of the families, because once a body is buried, people start healing,” said Father Mbuthia. “So we are trying to speak to the family members, to console them and encourage them. To show them that even in suffering and even in death, God is there.’’

Rumors are also circulating among refugees that many bodies in the mortuary had had organs removed.

And there are orphans. In one family, for example, the mother, already a widow, applied to the United Nations last year for refugee status. When she was killed on Dec. 30, she had still not been granted an interview. She left behind four children.

An Uncertain Future

“Our frustration is that the people suffer,” said Father Claudio Lurati, regional superior of the Comboni Fathers in Cairo. “I understand the suffering and pain of the Sudanese who live here because they see that their future is not so clear. They are here in a limbo, just waiting.”

If and when some sense of normalcy returns to south Sudan, refugees may be free to return to their homeland. However, “they need basic facilities, such as schools, hospitals and infrastructure, but also security, because there are so many people roaming around the South with weapons,” Father Mbuthia pointed out.

Sudanese are frightened to go back home, with rumors swirling that some refugees who returned from Kenya or Uganda were attacked or killed. “How true these rumors are, I don’t know,” said Father Mbuthia.

Another issue, the priest said, is that unless the refugees return to the south by air, then they are obliged to pass through Khartoum.

“Now, can they trust the government of Khartoum that they will be allowed to pass peacefully, or will they be arrested in Khartoum? This is another fear,” he said.

Christian Solidarity International’s Eibner said, “It is indeed possible for many Sudanese to return to many parts of Sudan, especially southern Sudan — parts of Darfur are obviously an exception — without being threatened with death or imprisonment.

“The solution is for Sudanese to find security, social and legal equality, and economic opportunity in their own land,” Eibner said. “This is, of course, a tall order. There is surely a lot the international community can do to help make repatriation to Sudan an attractive option for those in Egypt.”

Doreen Abi Raad is based in Bikfaya, Lebanon.


Donations to assist Sudanese refugees in Cairo can be made by contacting:

Father Giuseppe Bragotti

Comboni Missionaries

8108 Beechmont Ave.

Cincinnati, OH 45255-3194,

(513) 474-4997

[email protected]