Tue, Dec 27, 2005 - Page 6 News List

The UNHCR, Egypt and the refugees that weren't

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , CAIRO

Sudanese remove rainwater from a tarp in their makeshift camp in Cairo on Sunday. The nearly 3,000 people in the camp want to be relocated.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

They started to arrive in late September, first a few who decided to camp out in the middle of a small park, a space more like a median strip in the middle of traffic in one of Cairo's more upscale neighborhoods.

Soon there were hundreds, even thousands of people packed into an area no bigger than a basketball court, staging a round-the-clock sit-in among the fast-food restaurants, banks and car dealerships that line the surrounding streets.

They had all fled war-torn Sudan, hoping that arrival in Egypt would lead to a better life -- and when it did not, they decided to take over the park that sits near the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

There are about 3,000 now -- men, women and children huddled together against the winter chill, crouched beneath soiled tarps hung across knotted strings. They have been there for three months, hanging their shoes on the metal railings, cooking, caring for each other's children, pooling money to buy food, mourning those who have died in the park. Their demand is as simple as it is complicated: They want the office of the UNHCR to declare them refugees and relocate them to a better place to live. But the law does not seem to be on their side.

"People have to understand that we are a UN agency that has limited capacity, limited financial and human resources, and in all cases we are bound by the law and regulations," said Ahmad Mohsen, assistant protection officer at the refugee agency's office here. "We just don't act haphazardly in accordance with the desires and requests of the person in concern."

In a city of 7 million people, many down at the heels, struggling to feed and clothe their own families, the plight of these people stands out because of the way it speaks not just to the luck -- or misfortune -- of one's birthright, but also to the frustration of those whose quest for a better life is blocked by circumstance and bureaucracy. These people see themselves as refugees, fleeing a country that offered little hope for a better life, and yet the law does not consider them refugees.

"A refugee," Mohsen said, "is seeking legal protection. But a migrant is seeking better living standards."

It is a legal distinction that infuriates Napoleon Robert, 26, a former economics student who fled his village in southern Sudan four years ago, hoping that Egypt would be a first stop on his way to refugee status and then relocation to the West.

"The international community knows the civil war has been going on for 21 years and people are being killed," he said, waving his arms in frustration. "This is my case. I need to be recognized as a refugee."

So to force the point, Robert and his allies sit, hoping that their very presence across from a mosque -- where they use the bathroom -- and beneath a sign advertising plasma televisions will persuade officials to put them on a plane.

But it has not.

"They consider Egypt a transit country and us as a travel agency," Mohsen said. "The perception that everyone that comes here gets refugee status and will be resettled is a wrong perception. It is not in our hands. He has to satisfy certain criteria of particular stipulations of the specific host country. And we don't have a hand in this. So the idea of going to the UN and the UN will give you a ticket to go to dreamland is a myth."

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