Deport the African refugees to Egypt? Not so fast

Refugees in Egypt face regular threat of arrest, torture, and deportation to their countries of origin. The revolution has not changed that reality. On the life of one Darfuri refugee in search of protection.

By Amir Heinitz

“No one cares about what happens to refugees anyhow. Last week 300 Egyptians were detained without cause,” expressed an employee at a Cairo-based refugee organization in response to the arrest of Monim Atron Soliman, a Darfuri refugee activist, just weeks before Egypt’s first democratic presidential elections. Fear runs deep. Publicly expression of political views constitutes a gamble. Unencrypted phone calls, emails or Facebook risk being intercepted. According to journalist and activist Hossam el-Hamalawy, the dreaded Egyptian intelligence services continue to work as usual. Security agents monitor, intimidate, and shut down NGOs, and detain troublemakers and political opponents suspected of collaborating with the enemy — an enemy that is everywhere and nowhere. In early October 2012, Amnesty International observed that “endemic abuses by police have continued since the uprising.”

For a decade, Monim Atron Soliman lived in a world where secrecy and safeguards against infiltration by government spies were the basics of everyday life. Born and raised in Darfur, a student of political science at the University of Khartoum, he fled in 2002 during what turned into the first genocide of the 21st century. Monim’s route first took him and his family to a refugee camp near Nyala, in South Darfur. Due to his studies and his open opposition to the regime of Omar al-Bashir, Monim quickly fell on the radar of the Sudanese National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). After continued threats to his life, he tried in vain to escape to South Africa, and eventually landed in Gaddafi’s Libya in 2004.

Deport the African refugees to Egypt? Not so fast
Monim Atron Soliman

Upon his arrival in Tripoli, Monim became one of many Africans in the land of the self-proclaimed “King of Kings of Africa,” and one of nearly 2,000 Darfuri refugees. Throughout his regime, Gaddafi invited Africans of various nationalities to Libya to work in Libyan hospitals and ministries or serve as mercenaries in the army. Just as Gaddafi supported outfits like the IRA, British trade unions, or Austrian right-wing populists, his regime also allowed Sudanese opposition groups, like the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SLM), the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), and the Sudanese Liberation Army to operate on Libyan territory. Monim established the “Sudan Contemporary Center for Studies and Development” (SCC) and the “Swadna Organization for Sudanese Youth,” which concentrated on teaching and community activities.

For the Sudanese, like for most Libyans, open organization remained impossible, but Gaddafi saw the opportunity for greater influence in Sudan by tolerating the activities of Darfuris. In the spring of 2005, he invited Sudanese rebels to a series of peace conferences at the Grand Hotel in Tripoli. Monim also received an invitation. A few days before the start of negotiations in September 2005, friends warned him that agents of the Sudanese Embassy were following him. On the way back from the Grand Hotel, three Libyans chased him down the road, as Sudanese agents lay in wait to beat him with an iron pole. Darfuri residents of a nearby neighborhood drove away the attackers and discovered Monim, his face so smashed and bloodied that he was identified only through his clothes. It took twelve hours to find a doctor who would treat Monim, for a fee of $1,200. He was comatose for 25 days and lost sight in his right eye.

The position of the Sudanese and other Africans in Libya began to change fundamentally in 2004, after the international community began to reengage with Gaddafi. Italy and other European countries saw an opportunity for gas concessions in Libya, and to stop African migrants traversing the Mediterranean. From then on, Gaddafi prevented African refugees from crossing the sea to Lampedusa and other European gateways. The EU invested 60 million euros into strengthening the Libyan borders, including the country’s detention and deportation capacity. As a result, Sudanese, Eritrean and Somali refugees who arrived in Libya after 2005 would often disappear in prisons indefinitely, undergo torture, and as surviving refugees in Cairo recount, be finally pushed over the closest Libyan border or left to die in remote desert areas.

After 2004, the popular refugee route that once ran from the Horn of Africa via Egypt to Libya, came to a stop in Egypt. Refugees and migrants began gather in the slums of Cairo. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) registered around 50,000 refugees and asylum seekers in 2010, and 95,000 in 2011. But taking into account non-registered migrants asylum seekers brings the unofficial numbers in Egypt to anywhere from 500,000 to 4 million.

The route to Israel

Starting in roughly 2005, refugees began taking the route through the Sinai to Israel. The Egyptian military enacted a shoot-to-kill policy for refugees who attempted to cross into Israel through the peninsula. At least 70 refugees, but possibly many more, have been shot dead by the Egyptian army since 2007. In 2010, Israel began the construction of a border wall along the western Negev frontier to keep out “infiltrators.” The allocated budget of $337 million is expected to be vastly exceeded.

Deport the African refugees to Egypt? Not so fast
The fence on the Egypt-Israel border (Yuval Ben-Ami)

The Egyptian government has struggled to re-establish authority in the Sinai. In addition to the terrorist cells that have made headlines in recent months, some Bedouin – mostly members of the Bedouin tribe Tarabin, and to a lesser extent Tayaha – have used the historic power vacuum to deepen their exploitation of migrants on their way to Israel. In 2009, reports began to emerge of refugees being tortured by Bedouins in camps in the Sinai to extort ransoms from relatives living abroad. Demands range from $2000 to $ 40,000. Refugees and Bedouins opposed to the practice have reported the removal of organs from refugees whose relatives are unwilling or unable to pay, often resulting in death.

Recovered from the attack, Monim moved to Cairo, where he and other Darfuris rebuilt the SCC and reported on human rights violations in both Egypt and Sudan. The SCC is one of a number of associations representing the Sudanese population in Cairo. Incidents of the Sudanese embassy tracking and persecuting Sudanese refugees in Egypt are widespread. “If you leave your house, we’ll get you,” is a familiar threat in late-night phone calls. A number of refugees from Sudan and Ethiopia reported that they have been pursued by gangs, who they have reason to suspect were hired by the Sudanese or Ethiopian embassies. The children of Sudanese refugees are kidnapped and identification papers stolen. Others have been assaulted by motorcyclists, who reportedly speak Arabic with a Sudanese accent.

The Egyptian police remain inactive at best. Victims usually have to find and deliver the culprit to the police station, and police often do not recognize UNHCR identification cards, which they sometimes even destroy. Racial discrimination against Sudanese leads to frequent mistreatment or abuse by the police. It is UNHCR Egypt, not the Egyptian government, that registers and recognizes Sudanese, Eritreans, Iraqis, Somalis and Ethiopians seeking asylum. While this recognition grants the refugees limited legal status in Egypt, and gives them access to small amounts of financial and medical assistance, the absence of the Egyptian state from the process has resulted in the growth of unchecked parallel structures, leading Michael Kagan in a 2011 paper to pronounce a “Country of UNHCR.” Refugees have complained that their cases are not always treated confidentially by UNHCR, who they fear cooperate with Egyptian authorities.

Sudan remains a significant grain supplier for Egypt’s ever growing population. Egypt’s dependency on Sudan’s support in the conflict over Nile water rights with Ethiopia is a major element in Sudanese-Egyptian relations. Since the ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is ideologically close to the ruling National Congress Party in Sudan, Sudanese activists believe that Sudanese-Egyptian security cooperation may intensify – to the detriment of the Sudanese refugee population in Egypt.

The SCC researches human rights violations in Sudan, and intimidation and violence against refugees in Egypt. Fighting the removal of organs of African refugees in Egypt and organ trafficking in the Sinai increasingly comprise the SCC’s other activities. In January 2009, the Egyptian state security stormed Monim’s apartment and arrested him alongside two other members of the SCC. He was accused of being financed by Israel and smuggling Sudanese migrants through the Sinai. After a representative of the South Sudanese SPLA in Cairo advocated heavily with the Egyptian government, Monim was released on condition of shutting down the SCC and stopping all public discussion of the Darfur issue. Monim reported several times by phone to the security agencies and was finally left alone until the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution.

Life after the revolution

With the political upheavals in Egypt, insecurity for refugees increased. Police presence has been scant in shanty towns. UNHCR and Caritas, the only official health provider for refugees in Cairo, remained closed for months. Two Sudanese women set themselves ablaze in front of the UNHCR office in early 2011. As frustration rose, up to 2,000 refugees demonstrated in front the UNHCR office in Egypt for week. UNHCR staff was beaten with shoes by enraged refugees.

Some refugee activists saw new opportunities to further their political aspirations after the political changes in Egypt in 2011. On July 9, 2011, South Sudan declared independence after 20 years of war against the North. A couple of weeks later, about a hundred Sudanese of all ethnic groups demonstrated in front Sudanese Embassy in downtown Cairo against the Bashir regime. One year later, in June and July 2012, students, lawyers, religious figures, and laborers demonstrated in Khartoum and other Sudanese cities, calling for lower food prices and the fall of the regime. Bashir cracked down on the protests with force. Activists have since been disappearing without charge.

The Egyptian revolution has been progressing in twists and turns. Offices of human rights organizations, like the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, were stormed and ransacked by the military at the beginning of the Revolution. A string of U.S. and German organizations were raided by government officials in December 2011. On October 15, 2012, the el-Nadim Center issued a report detailing 34 deaths, 88 cases of torture and seven of rape committed by the police during the first 100 days of Morsi’s presidency. Harsh criticism has been voiced by academics, opposition figures, and women activists against the constituent assembly, charged with drafting a new constitution to replace the one Anwar al-Sadat had tailored for himself in 1971, as merely replicating the protection of those in power, rather than establishing a legal system guaranteeing rights and freedoms as called for in the January 25 revolution. Refugee rights have not surfaced in the constitutional debate.

Disturbing the peace

In January 2012, the SCC and Monim were again targeted by Egyptian national security. He was again accused of illegally receiving funds from abroad to disturb Egyptian peace and order. The web portal Sudan Online reported that the Sudanese ambassador in Cairo, Kamal Hassan Aly, had demanded the Egyptian security authorities arrest and deport [Arabic] 30 members of the SCC to the Sudan. Monim and his newly wedded wife went into hiding for four months.

While the media is focused on the border conflict between South Sudan and Sudan, the conflict in Darfur has intensified. In January 2012, a paper circulated at the UN in New York and Geneva suggested the UNAMID mission in Darfur was too intimidated by the regime in Khartoum to fully research and report on battles and human rights violations. After meeting with Darfur rebel leaders from various groups in Uganda in September 2012, Ambassador Dean Smith, US Special envoy for Darfur, noted in an interview with Radio Dabanga that the security situation in Darfur had deteriorated since 2011. Smith sharply criticized the Sudanese army for bombing civilian areas in Darfur. The total of IDPs and refugees of the Sudanese conflicts in Darfur, Abiyei, the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile State since 2011 alone stands at upwards of 500,000.

Deport the African refugees to Egypt? Not so fast
A UNAMID police officer patrols the Zamzam IDP camp in Darfur (United Nations Photo)

On May 6, 2012, Monim was arrested by the police and brought to Qanater prison, north of Cairo. Friends were not able to establish contact. Refugee relief organizations were informed, but prevented further information from surfacing to avoid jeopardizing negotiations for his release. SCC members feared that Monim would be secretly shipped to Sudan. Bashir Suleiman of the SCC recounted to me the story of a former SCC member who was murdered upon his return to Sudan, assuming that two other returnees he knew of were similarly threatened by the Sudanese intelligence services. According to the UN Refugee Convention, signed and ratified by Egypt, deportation of a recognized refugee to his country of origin is illegal, if there are reasonable grounds to believe that persecution will continue upon arrival.

With Monim in prison, his wife received threatening phone calls from the Egyptian secret service. Nothing further was known about her husband’s condition. Modeled after the online advocacy for Egyptian activist Khaled Said, who was kidnapped in Alexandria from an internet cafe by the Egyptian security forces and tortured to death in 2010, Sudanese refugees spread a picture of a demonstration in front of UNHCR on Facebook, entitled “We are all Monim Soliman.” In June 2012 it emerged that Monim Soliman Atrun had been resettled to Norway. At the time of his release, Monim reported that thirteen other recognized refugees – from Sudan (from Darfur and the Nuba Mountains) Somalia, the Congo, Somalia and Sri Lanka – had been languishing, some for more than two years, in Qanater with unclear charges. In early September an Ethiopian refugee activist reported that she had been in touch with three Eritrean refugees, who met the same fate.

As the euphoria of last spring has receded, new political forces have emerged and old ones beaten back. Little has changed for refugees in the region. The battle between repressive regimes, regional rebel groups, and urban opposition movements continues to displace and exile thousands in Sudan and the Horn of Africa. Countries like Egypt or Libya, themselves engaged in conflicts over national and religious identities, tribal or class power structures, economic resources and long-held privileges – are of their own accord unlikely to champion the cause of refugees any time soon.

Rather, despite the European Court for Human Rights’ ruling earlier this year against the expulsion by sea of 24 migrants by the Italian navy back to Libya, Italy has been busy drafting new anti-immigrant agreements with the newly elected Libyan government. Some 1,500 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2011. In Israel, Interior Minister and Shas Chairman Eli Yishai announced that North Sudanese have until October 15 of this year to repatriate voluntarily (though it later emerged that he had done so without government authorization), and that “their lives will be made miserable” until they leave. The Israeli army has been reported to patrol 100 meters into Egyptian territory to keep migrants out. In response to Israeli human rights groups condemning an incident in September where a group of refugees was left in the scorching heat on Israeli territory, the foreign ministry announced it has “no legal obligation to let in anyone beyond the fence” and that “there has been no determination by any international body according to which Sudanese or Eritrean citizens are persecuted or that their lives are in danger in Egypt.”

Monim and his family live to see better days in Norway. (Although a recent diplomatic row between Sudan and Norway revealed that the Sudanese Embassy may be spying on Sudanese refugees in Norway.) Meanwhile, Taha, a Darfuri refugee, invited a few friends over to celebrate on a recent Thursday evening. Bedouins had kidnapped and tortured him with electric shocks for three weeks, after he refused to pay ransom for other refugees stuck in the Sinai. His body weakened from previous assaults and torture in Cairo and Sudan, his captors decided after consulting with a doctor that his organs were worthless. In the middle of the night they dumped him, naked and covered in blood, on a suburban road. After five days in the hospital he returned to his family, with his back and chest covered in long scars. Joyously jumping on their fathers lap, his young ones lift his shirt to peek at his scarred body. As he shakes back and forth, he says “I have seen sad days.”

Amir Heinitz is Cologne born journalist based in Berlin. He  worked with refugees in Egypt between 2010 and 2011, and previously researched migration and intercultural negotiations with the Truman Institute in Jerusalem. He studied international affairs in Brussels and Islamic and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University Jerusalem. His main interests are migration, political movements, social mobility, marginalized populations and xenophobia. A version of this piece was originally published in German in Zenithonline.