Few choices for Egypt's Sudanese migrants

Cairo's deadly clashes highlight growing tensions between refugees and host governments.

Salahuddin Mussa Mohammed says he's trapped. He fled his hometown of Janina in Sudan's war-ravaged Darfur Province a year ago, following what he says was a month of torture in government custody.

Now, with at least 30 of his compatriots dead and scores injured at the hands of Egyptian riot police, he says every option before him is a bad one. "We know Darfur's not safe, and I don't know how anyone can argue Cairo is safe for us after what happened,'' he says, taking off his cap to display the gash on his head dealt by a police truncheon. "When you're safe, you don't have to worry about being killed by the police."

The Egyptian police moved on the camp of about 2,000 Sudanese in the middle of Cairo early last Friday morning. With fists and truncheons flailing, and many of the Sudanese fighting back, United Nations officials estimate that 11 children were among the dead.

Though one of the bloodiest incidents involving asylum seekers anywhere, the deaths in Cairo are more evidence of the growing tensions between refugees and host governments around the world.

Rioting in camps holding would-be migrants to Australia broke out in 2001, and clashes broke out in September when hundreds of African migrants tried to storm a Spanish enclave in Morocco in the mistaken belief that they would be granted asylum if they made it inside.

In recent years, as developed countries have reduced the number of resettlement slots available for asylum seekers, more and more people have been left in limbo like the Sudanese in Egypt. The United Nation's High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) says there are about 9 million refugees and asylum seekers in the world. However, in 2004, the last year for which full numbers are available, less than 30,000 people were resettled.

For a year, Salahuddin roamed the Sudanese refugee community of Cairo, unable to get an interview for full refugee status with the UNHCR, and living on handouts.

He arrived in Cairo less than a month before a peace agreement was signed between the Sudanese government and rebels in southern Sudan. Though that has done little to decrease the bloodshed in Darfur, slots for Sudanese refugees seeking to go to Europe and the US were reduced in general, with Western governments seeing less urgent need than before the peace deal.

"Resettlement for sure has become more difficult,'' says Astrid Van Genderen Stort, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Cairo. "They don't see the pressing need any more." Refugees say the agency stopped hearing independent asylum applications over a year ago, something Ms. Stort confirms.

About three months ago, Salahuddin and a few dozen frustrated friends decided to up the ante with the UN and Egyptian authorities in the hopes of eventually being resettled in a wealthier country. They set up camp in a tiny park near the UNHCR office in a middle-class Cairo neighborhood.

Their objective was media recognition for their plight - unable to move on but still too afraid to go home - and more support from the UN. That dream ended in tatters shortly before dawn last Friday.

Finger-pointing has been rampant ever since. A spokesman for President Hosni Mubarak said the raid on the camp was carried out at the UNHCR's request.

Ms. Stort says that while the UN was worried about the living conditions in the camp, where a handful of refugees had already died, it abhors the manner in which the sit-in was ended. "We've always asked the [Egyptian government] to take appropriate steps to end the sit-in in a peaceful manner,'' she says. "We never asked the government to intervene in a violent manner."

Stort says the refugee leaders should take some responsibility, adding that some of them prevented refugees from leaving the camp. Salahuddin denies this.

Stort says the refugees' demands for resettlement are unlikely to be met in the aftermath of the violence. "It would set a terrible precedent,'' she says. The UN believes that many of those in Cairo are economic migrants seeking better lives, rather than being at particular risk of persecution at home, and this class of people is outside its scope of responsibility.

At least 1,500 Sudanese who were arrested in Friday's raids and later released have gathered at a downtown Catholic Church. None of the people there know what's next for them. They have little money and no homes to which they can go.

Robert Mori, a Christian from southern Sudan, came to Cairo almost four years ago, after he was falsely accused of being a rebel. After two months in detention in Sudan, he was released, but had to report each week to a police office where he was routinely abused, until he finally fled to Egypt.

"There's no money for us, I don't have a place to live and no one wants to give me a job here,'' he says.

"I'd fear for my life back home. Here I'm safer, but it's not much of a life."

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