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September 13, 2002
The World Isn't Watching
The Forgotten Refugee Crisis

Cairo, Egypt

Cairo is where asylum seekers come, fleeing Africa’s agonies. In the spring of 2001, 21 Sudanese child slaves arrived here. A group of Texas-based missionaries bought their freedom to save them from forced conscription in Sudan’s civil war. International Christian Concern paid $25,000 to the children’s keepers; southern Sudan’s bloodthirsty rebels, the SPLA, siphoned off a little along the way, as did the ICC’s agents in Sudan. When Sudanese officials discovered what was going on, another bribe was paid. The children came to Cairo in small groups by train. “We wanted to enable them to be relocated to a place where they would be safe and have an opportunity to pursue their dreams,” says Dane Welch, one of the organizers.

This moral cause is noble but sadly inadequate. The great powers of the West, specifically the United States, need a new policy toward refugees. Although richer countries should acknowledge their moral responsibility for poorer ones, post-September 11 America needs to rethink its attitude toward refugees for more pragmatic reasons as well.

The children—the youngest is now 9, the oldest, 19—have been here for a year. Stranded in Cairo, they sleep on floors, some nights on the streets; they do not attend school. In their boredom and desperation they have become diffident and wary, suspicious of the aid that foreigners can give, and yet entirely dependent on it. And these children are the lucky ones. Cairo is full of African refugees who are not so fortunate to have the sympathy of international organizations.

No one knows how many refugees there are in Cairo. To be recognized as a refugee, one must go through the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, whose Cairo office deals with people from 27 African countries. According to UNHCR, there currently are 8,700 recognized African refugees in Cairo; they have a backlog of 16,000 more waiting for their interviews, with a thousand new registrations every month. Thousands of others—perhaps as many as half a million—have been rejected by UNHCR and are now trapped, unable to go home. More arrive every day.

Some numbers you can hold on to—there are 56 Liberians in Cairo, for example. But the Sudanese are uncountable. In the slum called “Four and a Half” at the edge of the desert, there are as many as 600 Sudanese families, and there are slums like this all around the huge city. The majority of the asylum-seekers in Cairo are fleeing Sudan’s 40-year war.

The 1951 U.N. Convention on Refugees states that the international community will grant refugee status to protect those who have crossed a border and can prove they face persecution in their home country. UNHCR is bound by its mandate to grant status and protection to all those who can prove a well-founded fear of persecution; the two reasons it gives to reject refugee status are “no well-founded fear” or “lack of credibility.” If your story is not good enough—that is, not horrific enough—your fear is insufficient; if your story is too good, then perhaps you are lying. In a single interview, which may last only an hour, the asylum-seeker has to perform their wretched story of persecution and violence, and they have to perform it according to an exacting standard that many simply do not understand.

The three major countries that accept refugees from UNHCR for resettlement are the United States, Canada and Australia. But after 9/11, resettlement stopped. Canada and Australia began taking refugees again in January 2002; the United States started a month later. But they remain wary of refugees, says Vincent Cochetel, head of UNHCR in Cairo, and numbers are down. Last year, just under 2,000 were resettled from Cairo, down from 3,000 the year before. The target this year is 2,050, but less than half that number have been resettled. September 11 renewed America’s suspicion of foreigners; the delays in processing and resettlement are part of a larger trend as the Western World turns against its human rights obligations.

Each year, the United States, Canada and Australia declare a quota of refugees they will accept from the Cairo office; every year, UNHCR fails to fill that quota, and yet it still turns refugees away. Why? “If we had greater capacity, we could process more people,” Cochetel says. “But we do not have capacity. We are not a resettlement factory.”

The biggest problem that UNHCR faces in Cairo is a lack of money. Unlike most other U.N. agencies, UNHCR relies upon donations by individual countries for its funding. Over the past four years, Cochetel says, UNHCR Cairo’s budget has decreased by 44 percent, but the number of refugees they are expected to deal with has risen by 41 percent. New delays in processing time since 9/11 mean that more refugees are dependent on UNHCR aid. But with no additional funding, UNHCR has been forced to cut back funding for programs that cover medical costs and give extra aid to pregnant women. “We cannot pay for school as well as housing,” says Cochetel, even if both are basic needs.

The U.S. Committee on Refugees estimates there are more than 14 million refugees and asylum seekers in the world. But in humanitarian circles, funding is subject to what’s fashionable. “Since September 11 and the war in Afghanistan, there are new conditions which are conducive to refugee settlement in that part of the world,” Cochetel explains. “One million refugees have been repatriated to Afghanistan this year. The donors’ interest is focused on Afghanistan: This is the largest refugee community in the world. But the funding that goes there has to come from somewhere else: Resources are not elastic.”

International aid organizations are interested in making the news—wars and earthquakes are better stories than infrastructure and democratic institutions. Even Afghanistan is underfunded. “The attention of donors shifts as soon as you move from immediate emergencies to the gray zone between an emergency and reconstruction,” says Emma Bonino, former commissioner for humanitarian affairs for the European Union. “Reconstruction is not sexy.”

By August, UNHCR Cairo had spent all of its budget for 2002. This means, in the simplest terms, that there are thousands more refugees waiting in Cairo. For them, the city is a chaos of agencies. If you’re a Christian, or can pass as one, you can pick up a meal at one of the church organizations, like Musa’adeen, an almost art-deco complex whose courtyard is always full of tall, thin, scarred Dinkas from the Sudan. If you’re Muslim, or don’t mind memorizing the Quran, you can sleep in the hostel at Al-Azhar, Cairo’s massive Islamic seminary. If you’ve been accepted by UNHCR and granted refugee status, a U.N. organization will give you a little money—in theory, UNHCR gives about $40 to each refugee every month, depending on family size and need. But every refugee I quoted these figures to simply laughed. If you’ve been refused by UNHCR, maybe you can pick up night-time work in one of Cairo’s tourist restaurants; but when your shift ends, there’s no guarantee they won’t refuse to pay you, as it is against the law to hire illegal aliens.

On the streets of Cairo, the refugees face the racism of Egyptians, as well as the fear of arrest by state security. “If we are not able to take people out,” Cochetel says, “the refugee community becomes more visible and fuels feelings of racism in the community. The phenomenon of rejection and hatred is definitely on the rise here.”

For the refugees, the post-September 11 paranoia in the West has a very real effect. In Nasr City, on the outskirts of Cairo, there is a dusty old concrete building falling down at the edge of the desert. Everyone who lives nearby confidently reports that this apartment complex was built by Osama bin Laden; the Somali refugees who live in it came to Egypt to study Islamic law at the Al-Azhar seminary. Like thousands of refugees in Cairo, they live waiting for the currents of international affairs to decide their fate.

The great Western powers have a moral obligation to this lost generation, but they also have a simple political interest. Since September 11, the Western world’s hardening paranoia has had a terrible effect on the daily lives of forgotten people across the world. And America still wonders why they hate us. In Cairo, among the refugees, all the failings of the West are played out.

Daniel Swift is studying for a Ph.D. at Columbia University. He writes regularly for the Times Literary Supplement in London and the Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo.


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