Middle East

Egyptian Authorities Target African Refugees

Black Day in Cairo

Sitting in his dingy two-bedroom apartment located on the edge of the Cairo suburb of Maadi, Michael Lagu, 32, a Sudanese refugee, recalled a series of incidents that he said have forever changed his perception of the country he used to call his second home.

Lagu, his wife, and their three children fled Sudan in 1999 to escape persecution at the hands of the Islamic fundamentalist government in Khartoum. They found shelter in Egypt and applied for asylum. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) studied Lagu’s case and granted him and his family refugee status and temporary protection in Egypt, while the office made arrangements for resettlement in a third country.

For a while, things seemed to be going reasonably well for the family. Lagu washed dishes at a restaurant. His wife found employment as a maid for an Egyptian family. The children attended the African Hope School in the fashionable suburb of Maadi. Then Lagu found himself locked up in a local police station, along with his wife and hundreds of Africans, most of them Sudanese Christians from southern Sudan. None had any idea why they were there.

For Lagu, the story had begun in late January as he was returning home from the passport control authority. He had gone there to renew his residency visa under an arrangement between the UNHCR office and the Egyptian government.

“Suddenly, two men grabbed hold of me and dragged me towards a microbus that was waiting a few meters away,” he said. Lagu suspected that the two men, who were dressed in plain clothes, were policemen, though they did not ask to see his papers. “I told them I was a refugee and that I had valid residence papers, but this meant nothing to them,” he said. “When we got to the bus, I realized that it was crowded with Africans.”

What he had not realized was that a campaign was underway to round up Africans residing in the Maadi area. On Jan. 28 and 29, police wagons and microbuses crawled the neighborhood relentlessly. Witnesses report hearing policemen refer to the day as “Black Day,” and Human Rights Watch, a New York-based watchdog, reported that the intake sheet at the Maadi police station was headed, in Arabic, “Operation Track Down Blacks.”

Lagu’s vehicle sped off in the direction of the local police station, with about 30 people crammed inside. It made one stop—to pick up a Liberian who was also returning home. A few minutes later, the vehicle pulled up in front of the police station and the party was herded inside. The police “collected our passports and ordered us to line up against a wall,” said Lagu.

Soon more vehicles arrived and disgorged other detainees, all African. They were old men, women and children, some of whom had clearly been hustled out of bed. Since there was not enough space in the tiny cells to accommodate all the “guests,” the police ordered them to squat in an open space outside the station.

The fourth batch of arrivals included Lagu’s wife. She had been on her way to the African Hope School to bring their children home when she was picked up and brought to the station. “My immediate concern was the children,” said Lagu.

The security officers apparently did not share his worry. Parents were rounded up without any concern for what would happen to children left on their own at home. Breastfeeding women found themselves sharing cells with the sick and elderly at the Maadi police station, which got so crowded that accommodation had to be found at other locations.

One such location was the nearby Bassatin police station, a notorious facility famous for hosting murderers, thieves, and career criminals. It was here that many of those captured in this so-called “campaign of terror” ended up.

James Wol was one of them. At the Bassatin station, Wol, who is also an asylum-seeker from Sudan, was stabbed multiple times when a group of Egyptian inmates attacked the Africans for refusing to surrender their personal belongings such as money, watches, shoes, and clothes.

According to Wol, police and prison guards refused to intervene, instead watching from a distance as the inmates slugged it out in their crowded and filthy cells. “We were surprised to find out that the Egyptian inmates were armed with things such as knives and razor-blades,” he said.

“There was no food at this facility and the police initially refused to allow in supplies brought by our relatives and friends,” said Wol. “We drank water from a tap in the pit latrine located in our cell,” he added.

Later that night, the detained Africans were taken for questioning to the headquarters of the much-feared State Security Agency, an organ of the Interior Ministry. The next day they were driven in an overcrowded truck to the passport control authority at Cairo's hulking Mogama building, which houses much of the Egyptian bureaucracy. Witnesses said that three people fainted on the way, including an old man and a Congolese national with heart problems. According to one witness, guards refused to allow them to receive first aid until they were given hefty bribes. Relatives who followed the truck to the Mogama provided the bribe money.

The campaign frightened many into hiding. The management of the African Hope School closed the school and advised pupils and teachers, some of whom were victims of the campaign, to stay home until the situation improved. Others, too scared to leave their homes, staid away from work and lost their jobs.

Church leaders and human-rights groups helped inmates establish contact with relatives, and encouraged police to allow them access to basic humanitarian supplies such as food. The UNHCR was instrumental in obtaining the release of those detainees who were the holders of UNHCR yellow cards (denoting their status as asylum-seekers) and blue cards (indicating refugee status). But some of the detainees had not yet been recognized as refugees. In Egypt, unlike in other countries, such people are not given documents to indicate that they have temporary permission to remain while their cases are considered.

“As a U.N. agency we can speak only for these two categories,” said Karim Atassi, a senior regional external relations officer for the UNCHR’s Middle East and North Africa bureau. He added that while some of these individuals were carrying their yellow or blue cards at the time of arrest, some did not have them on them, and others carried cards that needed to be renewed.

“The situation was mixed,” Atassi admitted, adding, “We were never concerned that they would be deported.” He dismissed reports that the African community in Cairo had been specifically targeted by the authorities, saying, “I do not think that it reflects the position of the hierarchy.”

In the absence of any real effort by the Interior Ministry to explain the arrests, many were left to speculate on the Egyptian authorities’ motives in pursuing Africans. One theory held that authorities were searching for a murder suspect who was possibly an African, and had decided to round up all Africans residing in the Maadi area. But human-rights groups dismissed this theory. “I think it had nothing to do with a murder suspect,” said Ashraf Milad, a lawyer with the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) who works with refugees in Egypt.

The Interior Ministry argued that the arrests were a routine means of verifying the legal status of people who were clearly foreigners. The UNHCR has apparently accepted this explanation, but those targetted say they were unfairly singled out for harrassment and still do not know why they were picked up. The victims themselves have been left feeling traumatized and vulnerable. Many said they hope they would not meet the same fate as four southern Sudanese men who were deported after the roundup. Nobody has heard from them since they were arrested. In the absence of news, a dark rumor is spreading through the Egyptian Sudanese community: that Sudanese security agents executed the missing four men in the desert near the Egyptian border.