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Refugees in limbo.

NEARLY THREE YEARS after he fled his native Sudan, Mahmoud Bashir (a pseudonym) remains stranded in Cairo. Out of work and penniless, the 42-year old former journalist can move neither forward nor back. Certain arrest awaits him should he return home, he says, and an international community which he claims has abandoned its moral and legal responsibilities has blocked any hope of resettlement to a third country. "I am stuck," he says simply. "I cannot leave Egypt, but I cannot survive here either."

Denied the status and benefits of a UN mandate refugee and with the few resettlement programmes Cairo's Western embassies still sponsor closed to Sudanese, Bashir recognises that his predicament, one shared by thousands of his compatriots, will not change in the near future.

"These people," says Dr Amin Mekki Medani, president of the Sudan Human Rights Organisation (SHRO), "are classic refugees as defined by the 1951 Geneva Convention and its 1967 Protocol." They have fled their homeland out of fear of persecution for their political and religious convictions, Dr Medani explains, and they are legally entitled to UN protection and services.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), however, denies recognition and relief to any Sudanese in Egypt. The Sudanese, in fact, remain the only displaced peoples in Egypt automatically disqualified from UN refugee status and benefits, casualties of officious adherence to a deficient 14-year old bilateral agreement.

Last March, Medani initiated discussions with the UNHCR Cairo office to reach a compromise on the issue. Six months later, his negotiations proven fruitless. With an appeal to the UN High Commissioner in Geneva unanswered, Dr Medani has referred the issue to the UNHCR's donor countries. "Anywhere else in the world, the UNHCR will extend assistance to Sudanese," says Dr Medani, explaining his decision to write to the donor countries' ambassadors. "So why not here?"

The 1978 Wadi El Nil treaty remains the legal rationale for the UNHCR's passivity. Designed to foster closer ties between two neighbouring countries claiming a shared culture, history and heritage, Wadi El Nil's reciprocal accords have granted Egyptians and Sudanese certain privileges in each other's countries, including the right to enter and reside without the visas required of other nationals.

The UNHCR contends the accords guarantee benefits equal to those given to any refugee permanently settled in Egypt. Granting status as a mandate refugee would do nothing to alter the Sudanese position, the UNHCR argues, whereas material assistance could conceivably give Sudanese an economic advantage over Egyptian nationals.

Although Egyptian-Sudanese relations have deteriorated dramatically since the existing Khartoum regime seized power in June 1989, the Wadi El Nil accords technically remain intact. But Sudanese who have fled north to escape a regime most human rights organisations condemn for its brutality quickly find themselves jobless and stranded in Egypt.

In a developing economy which offers few work opportunities, there is a natural preference amongst employers to hire Egyptian nationals. Although many Sudanese find work in Egypt's vast informal sector, hundreds of others remain out of work, destitute and desperate. Many survive only by the assistance of friends and relatives abroad.

Egypt has so far remained uninvolved in talks to change the status of its Sudanese residents. But observers believe that the UNHCR's sensitivity to Egyptian reaction has at least partly inhibited any initiative it might have taken on the issue of relief and recognition. Material assistance might encourage a greater migration northward, some argue, an unwelcome prospect to a country already hosting some two million Sudanese. And official recognition of asylum would also antagonise Khartoum, which is equally unpalatable to Egypt however strained relations already are.

The SHRO dismisses such reasoning as immaterial. "This is an issue governed by an objective criteria," Medani explains. "If a person falls within the definition of a refugee, then he must be recognised as one regardless of the host country's position." And if the host country opposes that move, he continues, then it is the UNHCR's responsibility to find a second country of asylum.

Possible Egyptian objections aside, the SHRO believes (and sources close to the UNHCR have confirmed) that UNHCR inaction is largely governed by its apprehension of the overwhelming numbers of Sudanese in Egypt. Although all parties recognise that the vast majority of Sudanese residing in Egypt are there for non-political reasons, and would be uninterested in UN recognition, the UNHCR still fears it would be overwhelmed by thousands of applicants seeking assistance and recognition.

UNHCR concerns, responds Medani, are greatly exaggerated. Only a very small minority are here in exile, and even many here for political reasons would refuse UN recognition, as it would require their uninvolvement in opposition activities. "We are talking about a few hundred Sudanese at most," he claims.

A compromise advanced in June by the SHRO, which deferred the question of recognition in exchange for material relief, sought to alleviate UNHCR apprehension. The SHRO proposed that it vet applicants seeking UN relief and then forward those in greatest need to the UNHCR for its consideration. Sources say the UNHCR viewed the compromise favourably, but rejected it on technicalities.

One informed source explained that the UNHCR can legally assist only those it recognises as refugees. Further, no-one can be denied the right to appeal directly to the UNHCR, which circumvents the SHRO vetting.

Medani's recent move to solicit the support of the UNHCR's donor countries is clearly designed to make it a greater priority for the UNHCR. By involving the donor countries, Medani hopes to provoke discussion of the issue at the UNHCR's Executive Committee's twice-yearly meeting to reach a settlement on the dispute.

So far, however, the UNHCR remains firm and unapologetic. When contacted by The Middle East, the UNHCR said it would welcome referral of the issue to the donor countries as an opportunity to discuss additional funding and technical assistance, which might allow a reappraisal of the Sudanese situation.
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Title Annotation:Current Affairs; Sudanese refugees
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Dec 1, 1992
Words:980
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