African Migrants Hit By Violence And Rape Amid Heightened Nationalism In Egypt

African Migrants Hit By Violence And Rape Amid Heightened Nationalism In Egypt
Hussein Ahmed says he was attacked by two Egyptians while outside the UNHCR building.

AFRICANGLOBE – African migrants living in the Egyptian capital Cairo have faced more discrimination and less help from the authorities since a popular uprising overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak, according to community leaders.

Personal safety on Cairo’s streets has worsened for Egyptians and foreigners alike since the protests in January and February, which have been re-ignited in recent days – but refugees have been particularly vulnerable.

“Generally, there’s no security on the streets,” said Klovirt Jalo, chairman of Nuba Mountains International Association, a community organization for the Nuba of Sudan in Cairo.

Although violent incidents have decreased in recent months, incidents of harassment and discrimination towards refugees have not returned to pre-January levels, said Omar, a Somali refugee, who preferred a pseudonym because of the nature of his work. As police crack down on what Egyptian protesters are now calling a second revolution, the situation for refugees could deteriorate.

Refugees who spoke to Agnes Czajka, a professor at the American University in Cairo, during research she conducted in the summer, said they feared violence and harassment would increase during the elections due on 28 November.

Jalo said the police had been less than willing to deal with incidents reported by refugees or native Africans since January. He cited a recent hit-and-run case in which a Sudanese woman was ran over and killed. “The police did not believe us,” he said, so no police report could be filed.

Before the January protests, Omar said, “if you paid a bribe, the police would help you. Now, they’ll keep the bribe and do nothing.”

During the January protests and in subsequent weeks, media reports depicted a difficult situation for Cairo’s refugee community: a sharp increase in sudden and forced evictions, as well as illegal arrests by Egyptian civilians for not carrying proper identification. Attacks and rape of women became more prevalent.

Omar said it was almost impossible to find bread for 25 piastres (US$0.04), because most bakers now had a special price for refugees (1 Egyptian pound, or US$0.17). In addition, Egyptians were now served first, and at busy times, refugees could wait 30 minutes to buy bread, he said.

Women are dealing with greater difficulties, according to Omar, and they no longer ventured out alone, because of regular name-calling and groping on the streets. “For Egyptians, black women are prostitutes,” he said.

Increased nationalism

Egyptians blamed foreigners for contributing to the increase in commodity prices, and taking Egyptians’ jobs, leading to strong anti-foreigner sentiments, according to Czajka.

After her field work in the summer of 2011, she concluded that Egyptian nationalism played a significant role.

“Nationalism has the tendency to turn more xenophobic in moments of hardship,” said Czajka.

The continuous state discourse that foreigners were meddling in Egypt’s affairs had also not helped refugees, she said.

“It’s always easier to blame outsiders,” said Czajka.

According to Elizabeth Tan, deputy representative at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Egypt, some Egyptians associated the refugee population with the former regime, which, they believed, allowed them in the country.

“Now it’s over, so you can go home,” goes the popular thinking, referring to former president Hosni Mubarak’s era, she said.

Most refugees and undocumented migrants in Egypt come from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, and Sudan.

According to UNHCR, there are 43,000 registered refugees and asylum-seekers in Egypt. Unofficial estimates of undocumented migrants put their numbers at between 250,000 and 500,000.

At risk in the Sinai

In the ungoverned Sinai Peninsula, African migrants from the Horn and Sudan seeking new lives in Israel are sometimes held for ransom, beaten, tortured, and gang-raped by Bedouin tribesmen. But recently, information about migrants targeted for their organs has emerged. In extreme cases, they have been killed. Graphic details of the organ theft in Sinai were revealed by several news outlets, including the private Egyptian 25 channel.

“This is both dreadful and disgusting and the government must save these innocent African asylum-seekers, whose only mistake was to seek a better life away from their war-torn and poverty-stricken countries,” said Tarik Zaghlol, director of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR). “If the people who commit these crimes against Africans are not stopped today, Egyptians might fall prey to them tomorrow,” he said.

Local observers cast doubt on the ability of the Sinai Bedouins to remove the organs of the African migrants themselves and say they are a mere cog in Egypt’s larger organ trafficking machine.

This view is supported by Hamdy Al Azazy, head of local NGO New Generation Foundation, who was reported as saying experienced doctors were involved in the operation.

“Mobile clinics using advanced technology come from a private hospital in Cairo to an area in the deserts of mid-Sinai and conduct physicals on the Africans before they choose those suitable, then they conduct the operation,” Al Azazy said.

Trafficking centre

Egypt is notorious for being a source, transit, and destination country for women and children who are subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking, according to the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2011, which refers to the suffering African migrants experience in Egypt en route to Israel.

Migrants are frequently shot dead by Egyptian border police, arrested, put in jail, and deported as they try to cross the border. Not long ago, scores of migrants were still suffering from torture and rape in Sinai at the hands of their Bedouin captors because they could not pay to be allowed to cross into Israel.

“We have always condemned these practices,” Zaghlol of EOHR said. “The surprising thing still is that the government does not do anything to stem these practices.”

The renewal of mass protests and the deaths of dozens of protesters in recent days are likely to make refugee and migrant rights even less of a priority.