Status of the nation

Sudanese refugees confused by interview suspension

Sudanese refugees in Cairo say a recent decision by the United Nations to suspend resettlement interviews for six months confuses their situation and throws their future into doubt.
The policy change by the United Nations High Commisser for Refugees (UNHCR), which took effect on 1 June, suspends individual interviews for Sudanese asylum seekers until the political situation in the war-torn country becomes clearer.
“This is not a major policy change,” says Damtew Dessalegne, assistant regional representative at UNHCR’s Cairo office.
“The changes we have introduced are in fact to the benefit of asylum seekers in Egypt,” he told the Cairo Times. He says all refugees will continue to be granted UNCHR status that will allow them to obtain temporary resident status in Egypt.
The UNHCR made the decision in response to the nascent peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), who until recently were embroiled in the world’s longest-running civil war.
Despite the apparent reconciliation between the government and the SPLA, which is based in the southern half of the country, conflict still rages in the western region of Darfur. The UNHCR decision applies to all refugees from Sudan, regardless of their regional origin.
“This decision is not fair,” says Abdel Shakour Muhammad Khamis, a refugee from western Sudan who has lived in Cairo since 1990. He says the logic behind UNHCR’s policy shift is confusing, “especially for western Sudanese, as more and more are coming to Cairo, running for survival.”
Abdel Shakour says that despite monthly meetings between refugees and the UNHCR, the decision “was made without consultation.”
“There’s some justice in that remark,” admits Alistair Boulton, a resettlement officer with the UNHCR in Cairo. “There was not a great deal of prior discussion with the community,” he says.
Boulton says the complicated nature of the conflicts in Sudan is a challenge for the UNHCR.
“We know that we have a very peculiar situation to be dealing with—optimism in the south and apparent genocide in the west,” he says.
Creating two refugee systems for citizens of one country “just wasn’t practical,” he says. But he stresses that as the situation evolves, the UNHCR will continue to help refugees from Darfur.
Dessalegne says that despite the separate situations in Sudan, the UNHCR “really didn’t want to get into a geographic distinction.” He says that would have made the resettlement process unworkable.
“In six months time,” he says, once the situation is less murky, “we will be able to distinguish between refugees from the south and refugees from the west.”
A recent agreement between the governments of Egypt and Sudan further complicates the status of refugees in Cairo.
The four freedoms agreement was ratified by both governments in June and gives citizens of both countries certain rights that overlap the state boundaries. Theoretically, the agreement would allow Sudanese refugees to live, work, own property and move freely in Egypt.
Dessalegne says that the agreement may mean that “the majority of Sudanese would not necessarily need UNHCR to help their stay in Egypt,” since most of them would automatically be given resident status.
“In a way,” he says, “the situation will go back to where it was before 1995.”
Egypt broke off relations with Sudan in 1995 after the Sudanese regime was suspected of involvement in an attempt to assassinate President Hosni Mubarak. It was only after that diplomatic rift that the UNHCR in Egypt began resettling Sudanese refugees to third countries.
Dessalegne says that the Egyptian government neither consulted with the UNHCR on the agreement nor provided any information on when, or if, it would be implemented.
Abdel Shakour says that the “four freedoms agreement” will be “a privilege” for those Sudanese who want to settle permanently in Egypt. But shifting the responsibility for refugees from the United Nations to the government of Egypt, he says, is not a good idea. “For refugees, this is a very real risk.”
Until that agreement is enacted, the UNHCR will remain the primary group responsible for Sudanese refugees in Egypt.
The Sudanese government and the SPLA say they want to sign a permanent peace deal by the end of the summer. In the meantime, the situation in Darfur appears to be growing more serious by the day.
The suspension of asylum interviews by the UNHCR will be revisited on 1 December, 2005.
“This is a highly political game,” says Abdel Shakour. “But really, we all just want to go home.”

Issue 15 vol 8
Photograph by Leslie Griffy

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