People forced to flee from war and destitution are striving for basic rights and dignity under deplorable conditions. In contrast, international humanitarian responses look to be compatible with parallel, and frequently lethal, mechanisms designed to deter desperate people from claiming asylum in Europe and the United States. If humanitarian initiatives like the Global Refugee Compact, are to be more than a cover for rich countries trying to exclude and contain refugees and migrants in poor countries, they must demonstrate solidarity with struggles to establish rights and civic practices at the grassroots in developing countries.
It is urgent for richer states to share responsibilities with the developing countries that host the majority of refugees. Supporting ‘self-reliance’ for refugees and host communities, and engaging them in deliberation about solutions is essential. But economic support alone cannot address the reasons why people risk their lives to leave African shores in unseaworthy vessels. Our collaborative research with South Sudanese refugees in Cairo, Egypt, reveals the human costs of trapping desperate people under authoritarian regimes. It finds that refugees are involved in voluntary practices aimed at mutual welfare, countering violence and injustice, and establishing ‘deliberative processes based upon norms and rules that value respect for persons’. Such everyday manifestations of civicness may be small-scale and lacking in material resources, but they are vital to sustain dignity and to lay the groundwork for the establishment of legitimate political authorities, justice, and the transformation of conflict in the region.
Egypt is located at the crucible of the world’s most volatile countries in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, so what happens here is pivotal to the Refugee Compact’s success. According to official estimates, the country currently hosts some 250,000 registered refugees, along with an estimated five million other ‘escapees’ from conflict, violence and persecution. Most of them live in Cairo, as ‘urban refugees’ – a model that the Compact aims to encourage. Egyptians have a proud record of hospitality, having opened their borders to Armenians fleeing the 1915 genocide, to European refugees during World War II, and later to African and Middle Eastern refugees from the wars that have escalated in the region since the 1990s. In the process, Cairo accumulated world-leading expertise in refugee studies.
Yet it is painfully obvious that Egypt cannot provide a safe haven for refugees now or in the foreseeable future. No doubt, Egyptians showed moral leadership for the warm welcome they initially gave Syrian refugees after 2011, but even this select group now face threats, including deportations. Other refugees and migrants have routinely suffered such threats and violence, to the extent that an Ethiopian refugee set himself alight in protest outside the UNHCR Cairo Headquarters in 2016. Meanwhile, Egyptian citizens are being violently repressed under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s authoritarian regime, which has locked up, and potentially tortured, swathes of the political opposition and civil society; and has failed to even investigate the conduct of security forces in a massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters in 2013.
Wilfully blind to this politics, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, recently commended Egypt’s hospitality, and backed the government’s demand for more funds. He has stated that the refugees currently live in ‘desperate humanitarian conditions’ and ‘cannot meet even basic needs’. UNHCR currently bear the burden of welfare for refugees in the country, and the organisation’s programmes are woefully underfunded. In principle it is impressive that the Egyptian government has extended access to public education and free healthcare for refugees, but the government retains reservations on their right to work and offers them no prospect of citizenship. Moreover, the ability of refugees to exercise even the limited rights available to them on paper, is heavily constrained by wholesale deprivations and relentless human rights abuses in practice.
South Sudanese refugees and migrants are among the most vulnerable people in Cairo, for a mixture of racial, religious and economic reasons. Some came down the Nile in search of education, drawn there by the deep historical, geographical and linguistic ties. Most fled seeking sanctuary from the successive civil wars and internecine fighting that has plagued their homeland off and on since 1983, most recently in the 2013-2020 civil war. On arrival, they faced systemic racism, as one man commented: ‘insults are normal… [Egyptians say] “your people fill up our country, our country has become ugly because of your presence”; they don’t like us here.’ Such attitudes have deep roots in the legacies of Egypt’s exploitation of the southern Sudanese for domestic and military slavery during the ‘Turkiya’ in the 19th century, and in racial hierarchies instilled by the British under the Anglo- Egyptian condominium (1899-1956). This is part of the explanation for why refugees viewed Egypt as only a ‘transit’ state, before western borders were so firmly closed, and one reason why they remain desperate to leave.
Based on a series of group meetings and individual life histories since 2017, and the personal experiences of one of the authors (Angelina), we have tried to understand the socio-political practices of South Sudanese people in Cairo, including the relations between different groups of refugees and migrants, their coping strategies, agency and activism. Overwhelmingly, we found that they are subject to routine abuse and humiliation. We heard a litany of reports of assaults, sexual violence, arbitrary detention, exploitation by employers and landlords and even starvation, organ theft and suicide. These findings are backed by a wealth of scholarly, policy and news reports, dating back more than a decade. People have little or no prospect of legal remedy in most cases: ‘If you defend yourself being beaten the police will not assist you, they will just say it is a fight.’ ‘If a girl is raped by an Egyptian… they will not open any case against their people; instead they will ask your status, and the case will not go anywhere.’ The recent trial and conviction of an Egyptian citizen for killing a South Sudanese teacher was a notable exception, but the rarity of the case largely proves the rule.
Yet it turns out that South Sudanese exiles have become inventively ‘self-reliant’ by necessity, despite neglect and social degradation, and a flicker of hope is to be found in this. Some refugees have access to minimal and unpredictable humanitarian aid, but some of their welfare and all of their dignity relies upon their own voluntary commitments to mutual support and education. Refugees and migrants have established all manner of informal authorities, welfare and community development associations, including a chiefs’ council, community schools, and women’s groups. They continue to also rely on the ethnic, clan and chiefly authorities that are the backbone of local governance in their home country. Among the most resilient of these initiatives, are the problem-solving ethnic associations which welcome and assist new refugees, organise cultural events and become a forum and channel for complaints. ‘They come together to find ways to report and find solutions for their people… since they started this great achievement at least refugees’ voices are being heard.’ Community associations invoke and invigorate customs with rights-oriented electoral and constitution-making processes. At times, they are hampered by the social and ethnic divisions of conflict-torn South Sudan, but there are also examples of attempts to bridge differences linking different ethnicities in shared community events.
South Sudanese in exile in Cairo are reckoning both with external threats and with violence from their own communities. This applies especially to women’s groups. All too frequently, women bear the burden of precarious and exploitative employment as domestic workers during the day, only to return to a barrage of domestic violence at home. Their everyday efforts to support each other may be life-saving. Women’s groups like Oumahat Agsan Al Karma Association bring women together to discuss their problems and to devise self-help solutions. They have established a daycare centre to help working mothers; and have organised their own skills-building sessions. Women’s groups have also come together to raise awareness and protest against gender-based and sexual violence and to seek solutions. For instance, as part of the worldwide initiative ’16 Days of Activism’ in December 2019, the Greater Equatorian Women’s Union came together ‘to Stand against Rape’. As the chairlady put it, such discussions expose the high rates of sexual violence against refugee women and girls, and aim to find ways to work together to overcome the ‘challenges in reaching the victims… [that] creates a big barrier in the process of seeking justice and stopping these acts.’
Even in the hostile environment of urban Cairo, refugees and migrants are generating novel forms of inclusion, citizenship and rights among themselves. They quietly resist their status as political outcasts and humanitarian subjects, with efforts not only to survive but to safeguard their cultural identity, dignity and rights. Some traverse ethnic differences to create new affiliations and relationships, both with other South Sudanese groups and refugees from other countries. Some receive assistance and encouragement from Egyptian civil society organisations and citizens, notably Saint Andrew’s Refugee Services or the innovative ‘African Women’s Club’. These various local endeavours to bring about normative and practical changes are vital for refugees and migrants; for rights in the cosmopolitan city of Cairo; and for peace in South Sudan in the event of refugee returns. Humanitarians must avoid strengthening authoritarian regimes and should look beyond promoting economic self-reliance. Instead, solidarity should mean backing struggles for political inclusion, human rights and grassroots civicness for refugees, migrants and the citizens that host them in developing countries.
Note: The CRP blogs gives the views of the author, not the position of the Conflict Research Programme, the London School of Economics and Political Science, or the UK Government.