As many as five million Sudanese displaced by the country’s 19-year civil war live in Egypt, many on the urban margins of Cairo. Mostly poor and unemployed, the Sudanese displaced get by in an environment where no one — the Egyptian government, civil society or the UN — seems willing or able to help them.

Microbus drivers idle their engines as they wait at the end of the highway leading to Cairo. Exhaust fumes swirling around them, fruit vendors preside indifferently over misshapen and rotting produce, shaded from the searing light by tattered umbrellas. A small Sudanese girl trudges past the vendors up the hill to Arba‘a wa Nuss. The walk should take her only a minute or two, but the waste water trickling down the hill, and the weight of her baby brother on her hip, makes the steep, rutted track harder to negotiate.

Arba‘a wa Nuss sits in limbo on Cairo’s margins, an hour or more from the city’s belly through grinding traffic. Its name — “four and a half ” in Arabic — refers to the distance in kilometers that separates it from the beginning of the Cairo-Suez road, but most of its residents know it as Ezbat al-Haggana, after the camel-mounted guards who first settled in the area.

In the late 1980s, perhaps 20,000 people lived here; today, there may be as many as a million. Sudanese uprooted by war or poverty have come to swell the settlement’s population, directed here by relatives or compatriots who wait at Cairo’s downtown train station for new arrivals from the south. These days, the refugees are keeping close watch on negotiations to end Sudan’s 19-year civil war. Few have any hope that the talks will change anything at all.

Beyond City Limits

Displaced Sudanese, especially black African Christians from the war-torn south of the country, live in many quarters of the Egyptian capital, but Arba‘a wa Nuss is one of the few places where they have assembled in numbers large enough to make a visual difference. Most of the refugees here are poor. Most have little hope of leaving, and still less to hope for if they stay.

Arba‘a wa Nuss bears the hallmarks of semi-urban poverty, despite the occasional sheen of garish new prosperity: raw brick dwellings with turquoise shutters hulk next to unfinished constructions slathered in post-nuclear hues of purple or salmon, steel rods waving antenna-like from the rooftops. Property owners will build a bit at a time when they can spare the money, but when cash is tight, construction work stops, and so these habitations fade and crumble even as they take shape, always incongruously incomplete. The earliest inhabitants of Arba‘a wa Nuss built houses on land owned by the military. Twenty years on, through wad‘ yad (roughly, squatters’ rights), they have come to own these dwellings, and the government has granted the area de facto acknowledgment by including as many of its residents as it can count in the census, and extending a bus route to their doorsteps. Water and electricity supply, absent entirely until the mid-1990s, remains erratic at best. Yet marginality offers certain advantages to the desperate. Rents remain two or three times lower than the very cheapest rates elsewhere in Cairo, although affordable to the poorest only if four or more crowd into a couple of cramped rooms, or rotate the rent according to the occasional work they find.

Counting Heads

No one seems to know exactly how many people fleeing Sudan have ended up in Cairo. No one is even sure how many live in Arba‘a wa Nuss, although most observers estimate 500 families, with as many as 200 new arrivals a week. The numbers ebb and flow with political tides that begin in Khartoum and Cairo.

The Egyptian government has said as many as five million displaced Sudanese currently live in the country. The Joint Relief Ministry (JRM), a coalition of churches that has been working with displaced Africans in Cairo since the early 1990s, counts anywhere between 15,000 and 18,000 people registered, over 80 percent of them Sudanese. Vincent Cochetel, who left a position as assistant regional representative on legal matters for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in October 2002, believes those who come to the UNHCR office seeking refugee status provide an accurate benchmark of the total number. Last year, over 1,000 cases a month were pouring into the commission’s “understaffed and underfunded” Cairo headquarters. “I would not risk an estimate,” he notes, “but there are certainly not three to five million. Most come to the UN office, except those who are in Egypt for medical or study purposes, or petty traders.” In May, there were almost 6,000 Sudanese refugees registered with the UNHCR office in Cairo — 68 percent of Egypt’s refugee population (according to calculations that exclude the 70,000 Palestinian refugees registered with the authorities, and almost 2,000 refugees “de-registered” in 2001, who had not approached the office since 1996).

However many there are, the Sudanese — especially those from the south — stand out on the city’s streets, taller and darker-skinned than the Egyptians waiting with them for the bus. The older women wear bright Dinka wraps, the men dark trousers and white shirts, this uniform of lower middle-class respectability hanging loose on their long bones. The teenagers wear baseball caps and low-slung, oversize jeans (boys) or skin-tight trousers and clattering jewelry (girls).

While ethnicity and clothing combine to increase their visibility, enforced idleness makes the displaced easy targets for their hosts’ potential hostility. Because non-Egyptians must obtain work permits — all but impossible for anyone not affiliated with a foreign company — many Sudanese are unemployed. With too much time on their hands and not enough money to feed their families, they feel trapped. Those who do find employment, partly because they are better educated and more desperate than the Egyptians vying for the same low-paid jobs, face another host of problems. Women who clean houses, cook and care for the children of wealthy Egyptians tell of their salaries being withheld, month after month. If they complain, employers threaten to call the police. The men might do odd jobs in offices, or serve in upmarket restaurants and coffee shops. They are usually impassive, but resentment shows through tight-stretched smiles when colleagues address them as “Chocolate.”

Race Matters

Several incidents — including a street battle that brought the riot police out in force — have fueled the feeling, widespread among the refugees and many of those who work with them, that Egyptians are racist, especially toward black Africans. In the school built in Arba‘a wa Nuss upon the initiative of the Sacred Heart Church, the displaced gather to tell their stories. “Our children are lost here,” says one woman. “Society rejects them because of their color, their clothes; they are chased away from shops. They can only relax here, among those of their race.” Mark Bennett, JRM program coordinator, estimates that black Africans in Egyptian society must cope with two sets of problems: first, as blacks (“the darker your skin, the less you are accepted”), and second, as foreigners, with limited access to services compounded by a lack of cultural and linguistic familiarity. Northern Sudanese, many southerners agree, do not face the same problems, for both ethnic and religious reasons. Their skin color, similar to that of many Egyptians and Nubians, means they are less visible. As Muslims, they share an important affiliation with the country’s overwhelming majority.

The UNHCR’s Cochetel emphasizes the economic dimension of this line of reasoning: “The past five to 10 years have witnessed increasing racism in Egypt, due principally to an increase in unemployment as Egyptian workers displaced by more skilled labor returned from the Gulf,” he says. Furthermore, when “Sudanese congregate in certain areas,” they are particularly visible targets for resentment. While conceding that racism and exploitation do exist, Cochetel insists that the Sudanese are treated no worse than Ethiopians, or Upper Egyptians for that matter: “The Sudanese are well-educated and speak several languages, and are therefore in greater demand as a labor force. This leads to jealousy among local residents, and creates long-term problems.”

Perhaps increasing hardship is to blame for a general “failure to deal with the reality that Egypt is a multi-cultural society,” as Anita Fabos, former director of the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies (FMRS) program at the American University in Cairo, terms it. “Neither the Egyptian state nor the media, nor society in general, recognizes the right of foreigners to basic services,” Fabos declares. However limited the resources available to the displaced, there is a real basis for resentment among their Egyptian neighbors. As recent visitors to Arba‘a wa Nuss waded through the sludge past the auto repair stalls that line one of the main paths into the settlement, an Egyptian mechanic in grease-encrusted overalls jeered: “Coming to see us?” Another replied: “It’s the foreigners again. They’ll be wanting the Sudanese. They’re not about to give you anything, that’s for sure.”

Compounding the refugees’ alienation, and aggravating latent antagonism from the host community, is the age of many Sudanese. According to research carried out by the JRM, almost 30 percent of the community consists of young single people who are unable to complete their education or find work. Such problems increase tension between them and the older generations of refugees. In addition, they must cope with the difficulties facing young people generally in Egypt, where unemployment and drastically limited prospects brew resentment in pressure- cooker conditions, and where the security forces are quick to act on stereotypes that impute subversion to groups of aimless juveniles. Wider political developments can also trigger crackdowns on those whose official identity —  or lack thereof — makes them automatically suspect, as Palestinian university students in Cairo, routinely subjected to house calls or roundups, will attest. The media, too, play a part in scapegoating refugees “as drug dealers, prostitutes, drunkards or rapists,” Fabos contends.

According to Cochetel, around 200 people a year are arrested for lack of a residency permit, but the UNHCR enjoys “unhindered access” to detainees. His assertion that forced return to country of origin remains extremely limited must be weighed against the possibility that unknown numbers continue to wait in Egyptian jails for someone to realize they have disappeared, and that others still are on the run from the authorities, their whereabouts unknown.

Truly appalling stories spread among the displaced Sudanese, fostering fear that, even if unjustified, must heighten sensations of anomie and insecurity to an intolerable degree. One set of accounts revolves around the torture of domestic servants; organ theft is a related theme. “We must be cautious about the power of rumor in the community, as indicated by stories of organ theft,” warns Cochetel. “How many cases are really documented? I am aware of one” — a woman whose employer said she had fallen off a balcony, but who had been kept in captivity and tortured. “This was not suicide,” he asserts. The UNHCR commissioned a postmortem, which found that one of her kidneys was missing. “But had it been removed before her death or after? In any case, there was no follow-up.”

The refugees, for their part, says Barbara Harrell-Bond, now acting director of the American University in Cairo’s FMRS program, “dislike Egypt.” Stories of discrimination, organ theft or even murder merely serve to underscore the difficulty of their experience.

Recognizing Refugees

Sudanese government soldiers kidnapped Wilson in 1987. He was 15. They had killed his father; they took him to a training camp and gave him weapons. How he managed to escape is not clear, but he made it to Khartoum, and took refuge in a Catholic church, later finding work at the YMCA. From there, he found his way to Cairo. Literate in Arabic, he found a job in an office, where he made tea for the employees during the day and cleaned after they had gone home. He applied to the UNHCR for refugee status, but was refused. To recount this event, he uses the English phrase all Sudanese refugees in Cairo know and learn to hate. It is just two words long: “Closed file.” These words change the course of a life, signal that it has tipped over the edge into illegality and inform the recipient that hope ends here. In legal terms, they mark the border between asylum seeker and illegal alien, the possibility of resettlement and the threat of deportation, the end of waiting and the beginning of indeterminacy.

Although it signed both the 1951 Geneva Convention on the Status of Refugees and 1969 Organization of African Unity Convention, Egypt does not have an official policy on refugees. It has allowed other bodies, primarily the UNHCR, to take responsibility for determination of their legal status, and eventually for repatriation or resettlement. Recognition of refugee status is a precondition for seeking asylum, but if the UNHCR rejects a petition and a subsequent appeal, a process that can take up to two years, the asylum seeker’s case is closed. To regularize their status, rejected refugees must then pay fines for the months they have stayed in the country in excess of the duration their visa specifies — if they had a visa in the first place. Ten days before it expires, they must apply for renewal. “But most are scared,” explains Cochetel. “Other community members warn newcomers against contact with the authorities, so people place themselves in a position of illegality. It’s a Catch-22 situation.”

Refugee status determination (RSD) is among the points on which those working with the displaced disagree most sharply. The 1969 Convention (which counts as refugees those displaced by civil war or wars of colonial liberation, and allows for group, rather than individual, recognition) defines as prima facie refugees those directly fleeing a war zone. Harrell-Bond argues that Egypt, as a signatory to the Convention, “could grant prima facie recognition and get it over with.” In contrast to the impossibly lengthy, tedious process would-be refugees must go through in Egypt, she points out that Iran, with four million refugees, “does not do individual status determination.” In Yemen, too, Somalis are recognized on prima facie grounds.

With a backlog of over 17,000 cases, all nationalities combined, the UNHCR seems to be doing both far more than it can and much less than is necessary. According to UNHCR figures, asylum seekers must wait one to two years for the Commission to process their RSD applications, and “in the past five years, [the UNHCR] has made 18,000 others illegal by rejecting their claims,” charges Harrell- Bond, who believes that the Commission is spending “too much time on resettlement,” and not enough on defending refugees’ rights. Furthermore, she argues that the RSD system itself is flawed, as the very procedures recommended by UNHCR-Geneva are not followed. For example, “no one is given a reason for rejection in a form that permits them to clear up misunderstandings adequately or bring new evidence to support an appeal.”

The system consists of a “durable solution” interview designed to determine whether the applicant can integrate in Egypt. The resulting file is then referred to the US, Canadian or Australian immigration authorities, whereupon the asylum seeker’s case is no longer the UNHCR’s responsibility. Harrell-Bond, who believes that UNHCR should not be spending its scarce resettlement resources except when people are at risk, argues that embassies should do that work. Most importantly, she says, “it should not be doing status determination. It cannot protect refugees — which is its job — and at the same time be their judge and jury.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Cochetel agrees. “This office was not meant to be what it is. The UNHCR has been working in Egypt on refugee status determination procedures since 1954. It is filling a vacuum, determining status for the government by default because the authorities are not ready to assume responsibility. It is not natural for the UNHCR to get involved in this field.”

If so few applicants are successful in claiming refugee status, though, Cochetel lays at least part of the blame at the door of the displaced themselves, starting with their approach to the interview. In a bid to convey maximum need, “they advise each other on the process, and add fiction, extra elements. Because their stories are not credible, they are rejected,” he maintains. Harrell Bond, too, reports incidents of invented testimonies. In addition, the UNHCR’s admittedly restrictive definition of a refugee simply does not apply to many asylum seekers, who spent months or even years in camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Khartoum or Omdurman before coming to Cairo. Since 1983, the war in Sudan has killed two million people, and created four million IDPs — the world’s largest internally displaced population. “Why don’t they move on?” demands Cochetel rhetorically. “They prefer illegality in Arba‘a wa Nuss to the slums of Khartoum. No one forces them to come here.” Harrell-Bond has a ready response: “These people…are still afraid of genuine persecution in the countries from which they fled.”

Children of God

Perhaps no one forced many of the asylum seekers to come to Egypt, but push and pull have combined to make this a relatively attractive destination, or at least a transit point on the migrants’ mental map of hope. It is relatively cheap to reach Egypt, and to stay here. After the attempt on President Hosni Mubarak’s life in Addis Ababa in 1995, the government tightened immigration policies, making illegal aliens of the Sudanese who were already in the country but did not have the papers that became necessary at that point. Three years later, however, legislation was relaxed once more, and the railway link to Wadi Halfa was improved.

In the summer of 2002, as low-intensity warfare in Sudan continued, it became increasingly risky to attempt reaching Kenya or Eritrea. “Despite the shortcomings,” notes Cochetel, “Egypt offers space for protection and asylum when compared to other countries in the Middle East.” At the same time, several organizations are encouraging emigration from Sudan. This encouragement has been most visible in the “slave liberation” campaigns through which several Christian evangelical groups have attained a degree of prominence. In March 2002, Christian Solidarity International (CSI) announced that it had “redeemed 2,435 black Sudanese slaves from bondage.” Arab “retrievers” returned the slaves from northern Sudan to their home territory in southern Sudan, receiving $33 per slave. An additional 6,134 slaves were reportedly freed without payment. CSI claims to have freed over 60,000 slaves since 1995 in this manner.

Such assertions are difficult to prove, and refugee rights activists are reluctant to associate themselves with the “slave liberation” movement. The warlords and “retrievers” are the only clear winners in such deals: they are the ones who designate the slaves, and pocket the fee. Indeed, this interest in redemption may have reactivated the trade, and driven slave prices up. Often, too, the liberators have given scant thought to future prospects. This is how five young southern Sudanese, said to be former slaves, end up stranded in Arba‘a wa Nuss, their freedom bought for the price of a couple of goats. They have no money, skills, job prospects or plans. They are about to be evicted from a borrowed flat, but even looking for new accommodations seems to strike a sort of passive horror into their hearts.

“They have to take responsibility for their lives,” says the woman who is about to deprive them of a place to stay. Madame Nadia, as she is known, runs a day care center in Arba‘a wa Nuss. “They cannot continue to rely on me. I will do them a disservice if I let them stay.” Middle-aged and Egyptian, she stands out among the small constellation of young volunteers and students who have come to Egypt, most of them foreigners attracted by the prospect of working and studying with Harrell- Bond. Madame Nadia takes care of Sudanese children for God. Christian charity, she explains, demands that she make herself useful, and so one of the flats she owns in a half-finished building is given over to about 30 boys and girls, aged two to 10 or 12. The older girls help expertly with the little ones, who wriggle off their hips and run to the visitors, stretching out their arms to each in turn. These are the children whose fathers are dead or out looking for work, whose mothers clean houses all day in one of Cairo’s far-flung suburbs.

The day care center offers one of the few social services on which the Sudanese residents rely in Arba‘a wa Nuss. According to a need assessment carried out by the JRM in February, the community’s three main areas of need are medical care, advocacy and food; other needs include education for children and adults, employment opportunities and vocational training. The JRM, an ecumenical association, receives limited resources from 32 donors, among them the UNHCR, which works through implementing partners to offer assistance. Overwhelmingly, though, if the refugees in Arba‘a wa Nuss need help, they turn to an explicitly religious Christian organization, and sometimes the interests at stake have little to do with the refugees’ welfare. For example, according to Harrell-Bond, one church offered to help fund the Sacred Heart school, but on condition that all the Muslim students were expelled. The headmaster refused. A volunteer with a legal aid project affiliated to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights recounts that Muslim refugees woke up one morning last winter to discover that blankets had been distributed to their Christian neighbors, while they had somehow been overlooked. The flip side, Fabos points out, is “that the state supports a Muslim Egyptian perspective through media coverage and various policies. This is obviously divisive.”

Clientelism, agrees Cochetel, is characteristic of any religion, and while he is reluctant to “create religious dependence” through the supply of assistance, he cites practical considerations when explaining the UNHCR’s reliance on the church network. The churches were already active in the field. In the great Muslim vs. Christian debate, it is easy to forget that there is also a threat to “the older African religions, for which survival is difficult in the religious environment here.”

On the other hand, given that the vast majority of all refugees in Egypt are Muslim — the southern Sudanese being virtually the sole exception — it may seem astonishing that civil society has done so little to respond to their needs. “Why are the mosques not doing anything?” Harrell-Bond wonders. The UN has met with Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, the sheikh of Al-Azhar, in an effort to change that. Some mosques have medical centers, but provide health care on an individual basis, and offer no outreach facilities. As for NGOs associated with the Islamist movement, they often have problems with the authorities, and little inclination to expand their activities in any visible manner. Subject to the vagaries of the “war on terrorism,” they confine themselves to propounding Islamic charity for the numerous poor Egyptians. Secular human rights organizations also contend with draconian government restrictions, and feel their primary mandate is to help Egyptians.

Series of Purgatories

Given this maelstrom of competing interests, the displaced often feel that their only hope is self-reliance. In 2000, a few of them formed a problem-solving committee, and with assistance from Egyptian and foreign psychiatrists, lawyers and social workers began training volunteers, recruited principally among the “hopeless cases” — asylum seekers the UNHCR had rejected. “Once you know nobody will help you,” says the organization’s coordinator in Arba‘a wa Nuss, “you start learning to help yourself.”

The desolation of life here for the displaced — those who will not make the long trek back to the UNHCR office, and who will wait, no longer knowing what they are waiting for —  is that they had no experience of poverty to prepare them for the misery of a Cairo slum. From the horror of war, they have slipped directly into a series of purgatories, of which Arba‘a wa Nuss is only the most recent. Here they wait, trying to remember what pride was like. “We were not poor,” says one of the women at the Sacred Heart school in Arba‘a wa Nuss. “They should not think we had nothing. But we have lost all this: our land, our music, our songs.”

How to cite this article:

Pascale Ghazaleh "Two Miles into Limbo," Middle East Report 225 (Winter 2002).

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