She has lived in Cairo for 12 years, a refugee from war torn Darfur in Sudan. But she says she is regularly the subject of catcalls on the streets. People often ask her if her family descends from monkeys and some other African animal. Her skin color is the brunt of jokes. Egyptians routinely express surprise that she can read and speak Arabic.
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"They tell me how amazed they are that a black person can do things Egyptians can do," the woman, who asked not to be identified, told The Media Line.
Refugees from Darfur and sub-Saharan Africa’s other strife-ridden regions have streamed into Egypt in the hope of finding safely and shelter - if not permanently, at least until they can get permission to move on. But the reception they get is often so hostile that they are anxious to leave as soon as possible.
Indeed, many of the Sudanese refugees trying to enter neighboring Israel aren’t fleeing war and oppression in their homeland but life in Egypt. It is a risky business because the refugees are unwelcome in Israel and Egyptian troops stationed on the tense border between the two countries shoot to kill.
“There’s a huge problem of racism in Egypt, which is generally denied,” Barbara Harrell-Bond, founder of Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance (AMERA) and an experts on refugees globally, told The Media Line. “But, I think it’s getting more and more difficult to deny it, because more and more people are seeing the consequences of the lives refugees lead and the fears that they live under because of the refugees.”
Only two or three organizations that are viewed as open to any and all refugees. CARITAS, Catholic Relief Services and St. Andrew’s Church, which despite being affiliated with the Catholic Church, offers aid to all refugees regardless of their religious affiliation.
In the past nine months, the Israeli government estimates that some 36,000 Africans have crossed the border into Israel illegally, with some 2,000 in August alone, including over 100 in one night. Officials are concerned that deteriorating economic conditions in Egypt, where the International Monetary Fund expects the economy to grow by 1.5% annually in this year and next, will cause the influx swell.
Tawer Ali, secretary-general of the Cairo-based New Sudan Research and Strategic Studies Center and community leader in the refugee-dominated town Arba’a Wa Nos, says many in the refugee population in Egypt have lost patience with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and are taking matters into their own hands.
“Refugees are frustrated with the formalities of the UNHCR [because] they are slow moving. Some of them [refugees] have had eight years here, some seven years,” Ali, a refugee himself, told The Media Line. “This frustrates them and many want to go outside [Egypt] or try to return back to Sudan.”
Officially the UNHCR is assisting 41,360 documented refugees and asylum seekers. Most of Egypt’s tens of thousands of refugees are from Sudan, which is Egypt’s southern neighbor, and came in two waves. A two-decade long civil war between the north and south of Sudan was responsible for the initial influx of refugees. Since 2003, nearly all the Sudanese are from the Sudanese region of Darfur.
Ali says living conditions and the restrictions placed on the refugees in Egypt have been instrumental in creating circumstances for Sudanese to want to sneak into Israel, where most view life as “easier and with more opportunities.”
“Some of them don’t want to return to Sudan, they want to go to [a] third country because they have lost everything at home,” says Ali, although he did admit that some are looking to return to the newly created state of South Sudan.
Israel is already home to some 27,000 refugees from Eritrea, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ivory Coast. They are concentrated in Tel Aviv, where they work in low-paid service jobs and live in cramped conditions in poor neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the number of refugees seeping through Israel’s border with Egypt is growing – 15,000 in 2010 and less than 6,000 in 2009 – according to Israeli government figures.
The Israeli government has promised a limited number of refugees will be granted work visas in the near future. For Africans, it is a future they are willing to risk their lives for.
In the latest lethal incident, two Sudanese men were shot and killed by Egyptian border police along the lengthy desert border with Israel on August 17. The men had been trying to enter the Jewish state, but were stopped by Egyptian security personnel, who allegedly demanded they stop before opening fire on the two. Estimates vary, but probably about 20 migrants have been killed this year.
Security officials say they have no choice but to take a tough line on the refugees. The border is a crossing point for smugglers as well as terrorists. Last month, eight Israelis and five Egyptian security personnel were killed when gunmen attacked Israeli vehicles near the border. The killings created diplomatic incident and soured bilateral relations.
Egyptian sentiments about the refugees began to change after a 2005 sit-in by refugees in Cairo, tens of demonstrators killed and wounded by Egyptian security forces, began to become clear.
An Egyptian journalist recalls that she heard many derogatory remarks being said about African refugees during and after the incident.
“I heard people say that they ‘deserved it’ and ‘they come here and ruin our country, bring with them diseases such as AIDS,” the reporter told The Media Line, asking for her name not to be revealed.
Akram Osman, an interpreter and researcher at AMERA in Cairo, says many
Egyptians do not fully understand the reasons so many African refugees
are in the country.
“Most refugees [in Egypt] live in poorer neighborhoods where people are
uneducated and suffer just as much as the refugees, so it is important
that the refugees respect Egyptian life all the time. They cannot come
here and act like they are in Sudan. That only causes problems,” Osman
told The Media Line.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there, especially in the poor
neighborhoods, and often Africans are not treated very well,” he told
The Media Line. Sudanese often complain about the words and gestures
directed at them by Egyptians on the streets. “Many Egyptians claim what
they say is just their sense of humor, but this is not the case.”
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