Refugees in Cairo, Egypt
Tesfai lives in a cramped apartment with his wife and four of his children. His other children are scattered: two are imprisoned in his home country of Eritrea, two are somewhere in Sudan (the last he heard) and another is in Israel. Tesfai’s hair has turned white with worry and his eyes, which are cloudy from a medical problem he cannot afford to get diagnosed, are often full of tears.
Tesfai is not permitted to get a job in Egypt. His children cannot go to school, nor can they freely play with other children because of the security problems they face. They live here illegally, having unsuccessfully completed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) process that they hoped would grant them refugee status. Refugee status would allow them legal residency and protect them from deportation to their home country, where they would once again face the persecution from which they have fled.
Tesfai came to the Refugee Legal Aid Project (RLAP) near the end of my six months working there. He wanted help in getting the UNHCR to reconsider his case, which had already been rejected, appealed and closed. He described a situation not uncommon for refugees without official refugee status: “We live as though we are in prison, without freedom. Even my 16-year-old son was stopped by Egyptian security. We’re in a critical situation. Next to God, I only have you.” Egyptian security has a history of conducting racially-motivated arrests, rounding up Africans from buses, streets and even homes. Though the RLAP does not typically assist with re-openings of closed cases, Tesfai’s plea was hard for me to ignore.
The Refugee Legal Aid Project is a nonprofit, free legal service for people applying for refugee status at the UNHCR-Cairo office, which received over 13,000 applications in 2002, the highest number of any country worldwide. My job as a legal advisor was to demonstrate how clients met the internationally accepted refugee definition, laid out in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees: “A refugee is a person outside his country of origin who has a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” The vast majority of asylum seekers we dealt with came from Egypt’s southern neighbor, Sudan; the rest have fled Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone or Liberia.
Tesfai’s case is common – a political dissident opposed to, and therefore persecuted by, the current regime. As a tailor with his own business, Tesfai secretly made uniforms for the underground political party to which he belonged. He fled to Egypt when other members of his group were arrested and tortured with electric shock, afraid that they would reveal his involvement, making him the next target and victim. After he fled, the police station summoned him; when he failed to report to the station, the government confiscated his property and beat his brother.
Unlike Kenya and Sudan, there are no refugee camps in Egypt. Instead, asylum seekers fend for themselves in an urban setting as they wait for their individual case to be heard and decided by the UNHCR. Asylum seekers want UNHCR to declare them to be refugees not only because it grants them protection from deportation, but also because it gives them the possibility of resettlement to a third country such as the United States or Canada.
The refugee application process can take years to complete. However, an applicant is better off having a case pending than denied, for his options are essentially exhausted once his file is closed. As with Tesfai, the only hope that remains is a reopening, something the UNHCR is reluctant to grant as there is currently a backlog of tens of thousands of cases pending decision and appeal. The Egyptian government refuses to take on the task of determining refugee status of individual applicants, as governments do in most other countries where the UNHCR operates. This means that the UNHCR’s role becomes one of judge and jury, compromising its responsibilities as advocate and protector.
I came to know Tesfai’s background over the course of several interviews, facilitated by an interpreter who was a refugee himself. Other interpreters, like 16-year old Somali Yasmin, have already closed files like Tesfai’s but still volunteer their time and skills to assist other asylum seekers. The majority of the office staff consists of international volunteers; there are only three Egyptian permanent staff members.
Scheduling interviews was often difficult given the stretched resources we had to work with at the RLAP. There were only so many interviews that we could hold at once, given the space limitations, and there were only so many interpreters with the necessary English skills. When I managed to get everything lined up, it was not surprising to find someone else conducting an interview in the area I’d signed up for, or for a client to be hours late, or for an interpreter to be double-booked. Frustrated at first, I learned to be flexible and make do when things didn’t go as planned. They hardly ever did.
In order to get a complete and accurate testimony, legal advisors spend ten to fifteen hours, sometimes more, with a client, while the UNHCR interviewer has only one to three hours to do the same job. We then write legal arguments on their behalf and accompany clients on the day of their interview at UNHCR.
Before beginning work in Cairo, I used to think that UNHCR was the hero hailed by refugees; I came to learn that this was far from the case in Egypt. During my initial training at the RLAP, I heard horror stories about inefficiencies and flaws in the UNHCR process, about the incredible backlog that keeps applicants waiting years for results and about cruel, insensitive interviewers. I prepared myself for the worst when I accompanied my first client, but found that evil was not lurking around every corner and that every interviewer was not actually a monster. While there is much to criticize, the problems are largely a result of bureaucracy, understaffing and stretched resources. As asylum applications have continued to increase over the last several years, the budget has shrunk, limiting the number of applications that can be screened as well as the assistance provided to those applicants recognized.
The most common reason for rejection while I was in Egypt was coded “LOC” – Lack of Credibility. According to a study recently completed by Michael Kagan, a former lawyer with the RLAP, LOC accounted for 75% of rejections in the first half of 2002, at a time when the recognition rate was only 24%. LOC meant one of two things: there was something in the client’s story that contradicted itself or some aspect did not agree with country of origin information that the UNHCR had. Appealing cases dismissed for LOC is like shooting into the dark; it is never clear what was deemed unbelievable or inconsistent. Assessing credibility is a tricky task: interpreters make mistakes, cultural misunderstandings arise, trauma negatively affects applicants’ ability to remember and a lack of education can make pinning down dates nearly impossible.
To an asylum seeker who has told the truth, such a judgment is hard to accept. Having been rejected because of LOC, Tesfai expressed his frustration: “I have told my case and testimony truthfully and honestly, but I have had problems communicating it. I don’t even know why I was rejected. If they need more detail, then I can give more detail.”
It was hard for me to imagine that my clients, including an author, an actor and a lawyer, would leave their homes, jobs and families to travel to Egypt to live the life of a refugee – insecure, poor and without access to education or job opportunities – unless they had a legitimate refugee claim.
On that first day I met Tesfai, he told me, “I would not have come to Cairo for nothing. If I didn’t have any problem, I would not have fled my country.” In front of his teenaged son, he spoke of having contemplated suicide as a better choice to his current life.
Tesfai was rejected because of LOC in an UNHCR era that has hopefully passed. Within the last several months, LOC as a reason for rejection has been phased out, at least partially because of the arrival of a new administrator. The culture of disbelief is fading and the recognition rates have increased.
In my final days at the RLAP, I helped Tesfai write a letter requesting a reopening. The day he returned to thank me, risking security on the street, his eyes had changed – there was a glimmer of hope where before there had just been despair. I left Cairo with many cases still pending and fates not yet decided, including Tesfai’s.