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Living on the edge
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 27 - 06 - 2002

Gamal Nkrumah looks into the prospects for asylum seekers in Egypt
Click to view caption
The United Nations-designated World Refugee Day was commemorated globally for the second time last Thursday. It appears that there was some cause for celebration, although some observers remained sceptical.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) recently announced that it had helped repatriate a million Afghan refugees. More than 200,000 Timorese refugees were repatriated in time to celebrate East Timor's independence and vote in their first presidential election. In Africa too, the future seems brighter than it has been for a long time. With the end of civil wars in Sierra Leone and Angola, the prospects for refugees returning home soon look good.
Nevertheless, the outlook remains grim for the teeming millions of asylum seekers around the world who flee persecution, wars, terror and sometimes certain death. "The process of identifying who is a genuine refugee and who is not by the UNHCR is all very subjective. It is the luck of the draw," Barbara Harrell-Bond, head of the refugee studies department at the American University in Cairo (AUC), told Al- Ahram Weekly. She added: "The process leads to the demeaning of the asylum seeker and refugee."
The UNHCR responds orally to refugees seeking its help. It does not give them official letters containing legal arguments as to why an individual has been rejected.
"There are no legal safeguards built into the system to prevent genuine asylum seekers from being rejected. Unfortunately procedures at the UNHCR leave a lot to be desired," she said.
Harrell-Bond, an anthropologist by training, was won over to the cause of refugees during a visit to Algeria in 1981 when she saw at first-hand the deplorable conditions of Sahrawi refugees in Tindouf and other parts of Algeria.
She found their resilience and determination outstanding. "I was very impressed with the Sahrawis resourcefulness, discipline and organisation, their management of their problems and the ingenious ways in which they tackled the many challenges that they faced," she said. "I decided to get involved with refugees from there on."
Harrell-Bond has worked with refugees in a number of African countries, including Kenya and Uganda. She has also set up refugee studies and self-help centres in South Africa, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
"I soon found that refugees the world over are among the most resourceful and inventive people. They have to be in order to survive," she said.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan concurs. "Those who have fled violence and persecution deserve protection and assistance, not suspicion and contempt. Let us not forget that the great majority of the world's refugees and asylum seekers are women and children. This is why the focus of this year's World Refugee Day is on refugee women. These women face tremendous challenges. Yet they show enormous courage and determination in holding their families together," said Annan in a special message on World Refugee Day.
It is in this context that Harrell-Bond and others are drumming up support for the cause of refugees in Egypt, where tens of thousands have found their way, usually en route to final destinations further afield in Europe and North America.
According to Harrell-Bond, there is an urgent need to give legal assistance to refugees in Egypt. She had set up a programme to render such help in East Africa.
Harrell-Bond was instrumental in launching the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Programme at AUC, the first of its kind in the region -- a one-week intensive course taught by Sharryn Aiken, a legal specialist, at the Osgoode School of Law and Refugee Studies Centre, York University, Toronto.
"We are trying to get more Egyptians to attend the course. Last year some 85 students sat the exam. This year we hope to have over 100.
We have had students from as far afield as Lithuania and Liberia, and others from neighbouring Arab countries like Jordan and Sudan, and even from distant Morocco."
The AUC refugee centre also offers courses in refugee law and a practical course in which refugees learn how to present their cases to UNHCR personnel and the Egyptian authorities.
"We also do what are called 'appeals', because there's no such thing as an independent appeal body in Egypt. The refugees' appeals are heard by the same people who made the decision to brand the asylum seeker a bogus refugee in the first place," said Harrel-Bond.
Refugee status should be something people can rely on to give them a sense of security, she argued. "A better understanding of why people come to Egypt is vitally important. For example there is a civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and people should not be surprised if some Congolese end up in Egypt," she said.
Harrell-Bond's efforts have already started to bear fruit. A few Egyptians have become involved with the refugees after taking part in AUC's refugee courses. "We wanted to be the first group in Egypt to take up refugee rights," said Heba Qassim, head of the Refugee Centre for Human Rights.
An active human rights campaigner for the past eight years, Qassim graduated from the Forced migration and Refugee Studies Programme, AUC. She now heads a team of four lawyers and two social workers at the centre.
In April 2001 they opened as a legally registered non-profit company in an office in Al-Malek Al-Saleh riverside district of Old Cairo. They work long hours on a voluntary basis, but they feel that their work is meaningful and satisfying.
"I cannot think of anything more rewarding than what I do," Qassim said."We are supposed to work from 10am to 6.30pm, but we end up staying until nine every evening. The refugees know we provide legal aid and our services are all free of charge. News travels fast and more asylum seekers come to us for assistance."
Qassim said that even though some of the asylum seekers were literate, most were functionally illiterate and could not fill out forms, or argue their cases. Many did not speak Arabic and those who did, often spoke with an accent that made them difficult to understand, or spoke an incomprehensible dialect.
"I would like to stress that one of the worst aspects of the refugee situation in Egypt is the lack of education for their children," said Qassim.
Qassim's centre deals with three kinds of refugees. First, there are the asylum seekers who have been officially accepted as refugees. Second, there are those who have had their cases rejected and are appealing against the UNHCR ruling. The third and last category is the closed file cases who have had their appeals rejected.
Among the refugees who frequent the centre are Afghans, Palestinians and Iraqis, but most refugees in Egypt are from Africa. The vast majority are from Sudan, both northern and southern Sudanese. But there are large numbers of Somalis, Eritreans and Ethiopians as well as West Africans from Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The officially recognised refugees hold IDs, or UN blue cards, and have their residence papers in order. They do not even need to have passports. Most of the asylum seekers Qassim's organisation attends to, however, are UNHCR rejects, appealing against the UN body's verdict. They are often instinctively fearful of the authorities, they dread interrogations and there are other psychological pressures at work.
Many asylum seekers feel that Egyptians are biased against them, or that racism is widespread in the country.
But there are those who know that there are Egyptians who care and who are prepared to stand up and do something for them.
Though foreigners started this service in Egypt, people like Qassim are showing themselves to be just as efficient as the pioneers.
"More and more Egyptians are coming forward to volunteer. Heba's group is completely Egyptian. Her initiative shows how important it is to get Egyptians involved," said Harrell-Bond.
"Refugees and asylum seekers are a huge new field for Egyptian lawyers," she added. But it is important, she said, for the public to realise that most are not economic migrants, but refugees. That their lives are in danger.
"It is also important for us to realise that refugees are pouring millions into the private rental sector." They are, she said, receiving millions in remittances from abroad. They have spending power and therefore must not be regarded as a burden on the state. There is too much obsession with the bogus refugee.
"Of course, there are always a small number of people who make up 'manifestly unfounded claims' to use UNHCR terminology," Harrell Bond said. "But the vast majority of refugees can't return to their home countries. Egypt cannot afford to deport those asylum seekers who are rejected by the UNHCR. Many face death back home."

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