Sudanese refugees face dilemma of return

The ICRC estimates that about 360 unaccompanied Sudanese minors live in Egypt. Most of them lack education and financial assistance and are at risk of psychological and sexual abuse.
(Martina Fuchs/IRIN)

Many Sudanese refugees are pushed into considering voluntary repatriation if only because surviving in Egypt is tough. Mideng Mebai, waiting at the Waqf Culture Centre for Sudanese refugees in Ain Shams, is one of them.

[Watch video: Sudanese struggle in the streets of Cairo]

"We should not stay in Egypt but go back to Sudan, despite all the problems there. As Sudanese, we have no rights here," Mebai said.

According to the Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA), an NGO promoting the legal protection of asylum seekers and refugees, Egypt hosts the fifth-largest urban refugee population in the world, mainly concentrated in Cairo and Alexandria.

Although official sources claim there are only 50,000 refugees in Egypt, NGOs and researchers estimate about 500,000 refugees live in the country, mainly from the Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

However, economic hardship makes it impossible to bring their families to Egypt. Unemployment, insufficient education opportunities, limited access to healthcare, high housing costs and integration difficulties are some of the biggest challenges faced by refugees.

Mousa Hussein, who took part in an International Organization for Migration (IOM) assessment study of the voluntary repatriation of Sudanese refugees, said he could not bring his family to Egypt.


Photo: Martina Fuchs/IRIN
One of UNHCR’s targets for 2008-2009 is for some 5,000 Sudanese refugees to return to their country voluntarily

"I am alone, my family is in Darfur. But the financial situation [here] is just not feasible. Even for me alone it's very difficult. I work as a freelance interpreter at embassies and get paid on a per-hour basis. But such an irregular salary is not enough to sustain a whole family and adds even more instability to my life," Hussein said.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that about 10,000 registered refugees in Egypt, some 20 percent of the refugee population recognised by the UNHCR, are unable to meet their minimum needs.

"Unemployment among Egyptians is at 20 percent, rents are on the rise and inflation is very high. My own existence is getting tougher every month and I live on a very different salary. Can you imagine the situation for refugees?" said Marie-Geneviève Nightingale, a child rights advocate and researcher at the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program (FMRS) of the American University in Cairo.

Minors at risk

Lack of assistance and protection makes living conditions in the Cairo area especially hard for unaccompanied minors.

According to Nightingale, they are at risk of psychological, emotional, physical and sexual abuse, as well as economic and sexual exploitation. Girls and young women are particularly vulnerable as they are often engaged in domestic work and other labour susceptible to abuse or exploitation.

Although there are no official figures, Bahiga el-Gohary, tracing officer at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Cairo, suggests there are about 360 unaccompanied minors living in Egypt.

In addition, Nightingale admits many enter the country illegally or without documentation, have no knowledge of Arabic or English and are unable or unwilling to access the UNHCR or other organisations. 

The UNHCR provides a minimal monthly stipend to meet the basic subsistence needs of unaccompanied minors, about US$30 per month. However, El-Gohary stressed that many of these children are not registered with the UNHCR and assistance stops automatically at 18.

"This is why the ICRC partially funds projects for unaccompanied minors, especially by providing psychosocial assistance and vocational counselling," El-Gohary said.

According to Abeer Etefa, UNHCR spokeswoman for the Middle East and North Africa, the option of resettlement is offered to the most vulnerable cases. "The first priority is to reunite them with their family members, if this does not put their lives in danger. Otherwise, resettlement in a third country becomes an option," she said.

In 2007, the ICRC's tracing unit in Cairo issued 1,157 travel documents for several nationalities of all age groups in an effort to restore family links and reunite family members in other countries.


Photo: Martina Fuchs/IRIN
About 500,000 refugees from 38 nationalities live in Egypt. Many face unemployment, difficult living conditions and xenophobia in the host country

Dilemma of voluntary repatriation

The UNHCR has a voluntary repatriation programme to facilitate the return of Sudanese refugees to South Sudan only. According to Etefa, 1,645 refugees took part in 2007, although it is not documented whether they made their way to the South or resettled in other parts of the country.

According to UNHCR's global appeal, key targets for 2008-2009 include the return of 5,000 refugees to Sudan with improved security in the South.

So far, most refugees persevere in Egypt hoping for a better future once peace has returned to their home country.

"Most people don't think the conditions are right for them to go back. But the big concern now is not the question of [non]-refoulement, but that large numbers of refugees are getting detained in Egypt, or get themselves smuggled into Israel because of the desperate situation here," Barbara Harrell-Bond, a professor at the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program (FMRS) of the American University in Cairo, said.

For those willing to return, UNHCR offers financial assistance for travel to the agency's office in Aswan, where they get transportation money for ferry tickets to Wadi Halfa, a town in Northern Sudan on the shores of Lake Nasser.

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