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For Sudanese refugees, a cycle of flight

In Cairo, once thought to be fairly safe, many consider fleeing again – to Israel.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 30, 2007


Abian Majok Dong has fled twice in his life – once in 1983 from his village in southern Sudan, when the government began a forced "Islamization" campaign for the region's mostly Christian and animist inhabitants, and again in 2001, when government charges of treason – a crime punishable by death – propelled him to Cairo.

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Now Mr. Dong, a member of the Dinka tribe who says he's "about 48" but looks much older, is contemplating another move.

After six years, he says, he feels increasingly unsafe in a city in which he's allowed to stay but can't find a job or send his kids to government schools. One son got mixed up with a Sudanese gang and is now in jail. "I need to move on. We're in limbo. The UN won't resettle us; no one can guarantee my safety if I go home, and and the Egyptians will never let us become legal residents," he says, sitting in a dingy office that serves as a community center for Dinka tribesmen in Cairo. "We know how dangerous the trip to Israel is, but I understand why some of the boys are attempting it."

That trip is one that has lured thousands of Sudanese in recent months to cross the Sinai Desert and try to penetrate one of the most heavily patrolled borders in the world in search of work and, they say, security from persecution in Egypt.

Some have been shot by Egyptian border guards, others robbed by unscrupulous smugglers and left in the desert. Recently, about 50 of the Sudanese who had made it across were deported by Israel to Egypt.

The trend of Sudanese seeking to flee what is considered to be relatively safe Cairo is putting a spotlight on a forgotten and neglected community of some 30,000 refugees. Some, like Dong's family, are from the south of Sudan, where about 1.5 million died in a conflict involving separatist groups and the government in Khartoum.

More recent arrivals are from the western region of Darfur, where at least 200,000 have been killed in fighting that the US has described as a genocide.

The story of Mr. Dong and others like him illustrates not only what thousands of Sudanese have endured at home, but the hardships that have come with their flight to Cairo. It's been years since Sudanese in Cairo have been able to get an appointment with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), since few countries are willing to take them and because of a UN policy that favors a return home.

Abeer Etafa, a spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Cairo, says Sudanese from the south like Dong haven't been considered for third-country resettlement since 2004, when a peace agreement was signed between the south and the central government. Though refugees from Darfur are still theoretically eligible for resettlement, Ms. Etafa says, they generally have to demonstrate some added vulnerability in Cairo – for instance, a need for medical care that's not available in Egypt – before being recommended.

How it began

In 1983, with his village "razed to the ground," Dong headed north to Khartoum, where he chafed at the government-imposed Islamic law, but where his family was relatively safe. Eventually, he got a job with international aid agencies dealing with the flow of refugees from southern Sudan into the central Sudanese town of Babanusa.

Babanusa was a chosen destination for thousands, particularly members of the Dinka tribe, because it was on the rail network. But in 2000, Dong became aware of a human trafficking network, run by Sudanese who identify as ethnically Arab, which targeted children and women coming into town on the train.

He says he was particularly concerned because his eldest son was captured and enslaved for two years in 1990, though he eventually escaped to Khartoum. When his son's owners came to Khartoum looking for him, the family smuggled the boy to Cairo. At the time, resettlement was easier; that son is now living and studying in Melbourne, Australia.

Because of his past experience, he says, he became an informant to aid agencies seeking to expose the problem at Babanusa. Allegations of treason followed from the central government, which alleged he was fabricating the reports, he says. That prompted the whole family to flee to Egypt in 2001.

Though his story could not be independently confirmed before going to press, UN reports from the mid-1990s noted the practice of taking slaves off the train to Babanusa, and a US State Department report in 2002 said the practice continued.

"They say there's peace in the south and the only answer for us is to go home," says Dong. "Well, I made a lot of powerful and wealthy people very angry. Why would I gamble my family's life on the chances they'd forgive me?"