On December 30, 2005, some 26 unarmed Sudanese asylum seekers were killed by the Egyptian riot police in a makeshift encampment across from the office of the United Nations High Commissionaire for Refugees (UNHCR). Many condemned the unnecessary use of force, and the Egyptian government ordered an investigation. But the underlying causes of this human tragedy remain unaddressed. The Cairo tragedy can be repeated unless a solution is found to the Sudanese refugee crisis.
The Cairo tragedy was the result of the Western governments’ unwillingness to accept refugees from Sudan despite the continuing violence in various parts of the country and the mass killing of innocent people in Darfur.
The civil war in Sudan killed nearly two million and displaced four million. Thousands left Sudan for Egypt where they applied for asylum with the UNHCR. Those accepted as refugees either were given protection in Egypt, or were resettled in third countries, including Europe and the United States. All that changed in June 2004.
Facing the Western states’ reluctance to accept Sudanese refugees, the UNHCR regional office in Cairo suspended for a period of six months the refugee status determination for the Sudanese asylum seekers. Waiting for the result of the ongoing peace negotiations between the government and the rebels, the decision was to be reconsidered in December 2004. Thousands of asylum seekers remained in a state of limbo in Egypt.
On January 9, 2005, the Naivasha Protocols were signed between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in Nairobi. The accord was viewed as an optimistic sign to many Westerners, to whom the ongoing conflicts have until then seemed both interminable and inexplicable. Following the peace accord, the June 2004 suspension became permanent. The UNHCR closed its doors to the Sudanese refugees. Sudan was declared a safe country and the asylum seekers were asked to return to their homes. The Sudanese lost protection by Egypt, and the possibility of resettlement anywhere in the West. Banned from working according to Egyptian laws, they lived in dire conditions. Some found illegal employment at wages substantially lower than the national average. Others, only a few, received a small handout of less than $20 a month from the UNHCR. It was these conditions that led to the decision by nearly 3000 refugees to camp outside the UNHCR building in the hope of reversing the June 2004 decision.
The Egyptian riot police ended the crisis by brutalizing the refugees. But the crisis can recur in Egypt and other countries where the Sudanese refuges are desperately waiting to be embraced and protected by the United Nations and countries in the West.
The Sudanese civil war is far from over. The Naivasha Protocols have not changed the facts on the ground for the displaced Sudanese. They are skeptical of any prospect of lasting peace, stability, and economic recovery in their country. There have been many failed peace accords in the past. Each time more violence followed, poverty remained, and living conditions worsened. And the sea of internally displaced and migrant Sudanese continued to move desperately, inexorably, to the West.
While traveling for two years in the secret communities of migrants across Europe, I met many Sudanese in Turkey, Greece, France, and Britain. They lived in overcrowded safe houses, squatted homes, or slept on gravel beds alongside railroad tracks. They were men and women from all walks of life, who had clandestinely crossed many borders and faced life-threatening situations. But ironically, despite these hardships, they usually avoided any talk of the prospects for peace in Sudan. They feared losing any chance of being granted asylum if the European immigration authorities claimed that the end of Sudan’s suffering was at hand.
The Sudanese refugees have been pleading for help and genuine understanding. The severity of the conflict and failure of past peace efforts make it incumbent that the West and international agencies like the UNHCR treat the peace agreement with equal parts of cautious optimism and grim determination to see after the needs of this struggle’s victims. The UNHCR must urge the EU and other Western nations not to assume that the peace accord is a conclusion to the refugee problem. The Sudanese are still fleeing war and its devastating economic and social consequences. The gates to the West should not be closed to the refugees.
BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN is the author of Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West ( Delacorte Press, 2005). He is a professor of economics at Ramapo College of New Jersey. Visit Yaghmaian’s website. He could be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.