By Hadeer El-Mahdawy – Mada Masr
Security forces used batons and water cannons to disperse a protest by refugees in front of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 6th of October City on Sunday, according to several eyewitnesses. Police arrested a number of protesters and confiscated phones from several others to prevent any pictures or videos of the incident.
Dozens of refugees — most of them from Sudan’s Darfur region, as well as from South Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia — had gathered to denounce repeated incidents of violence against refugees in Egypt, and against children in particular, after a Sudanese child was killed last week in 6th of October City, according to several protesters. The protesters’ demands included greater protections, resettlement, or transfer to camps inside Egypt for protection. (Egypt is distinct from other countries in the region in that it doesn’t host refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced people in designated camps).
An eyewitness said security forces began to disperse protesters by beating them and hosing them down with water within 15 minutes of the demonstration getting underway.
“We organized a peaceful protest in order to deliver a message to the commission to protect us, especially people living in the Abnaa al-Giza area,” one of the protest organizers, a refugee from Darfur, said. “We submit complaints and no one listens to us.”
The call for the protest came in the wake of the killing of Mohamed Hassan, a 14-year-old Sudanese refugee, in 6th of October City on Thursday. The Public Prosecution announced on Saturday that the suspected perpetrator had been arrested and detained. In a second statement on Sunday the prosecution ordered the defendant to be held for four days in remand detention after he confessed to murdering the child by stabbing him to death inside his house to take revenge on the child’s father due to a money-related dispute.
In the Sunday statement, the prosecution said that it was pursuing legal measures to confront attacks against both Egyptians and foreigners without discrimination. “We are calling for people to be aware of the desperate attempts by some predators to claim that refugees or foreigners in Egypt have less rights and that attacks on them are tolerated in any way.”
In addition to security forces stationed outside the UNHCR office, there was an initial heavy security presence after the child’s murder in Abnaa al-Giza and Masaken Othman, two social housing projects in 6th of October City, where a large number of Sudanese refugees live.
“We came to demonstrate to demand protections from the UN refugee agency,” a refugee from Darfur who has been living in Egypt since 2016 and is a neighbor to the victim’s family, said. “Most of us are women and the protest was peaceful. We stood on the sidewalk. An officer came and told us if we didn’t leave in 10 minutes we would die. We stood firm regarding our position. We are not addressing anything political in Egypt, we are fleeing politics. We are mothers with children and we came here to represent the mother of the murdered child, Mohamed Hassan. Mohamed is our child.”
Shortly after Sunday’s protest, a number of Sudanese refugees gathered outside Hassan’s house awaiting the arrival of his body from the morgue, with police forces reportedly firing tear gas to disperse the crowd. According to a resident from the area, a child was rushed to hospital after being struck in the head by a tear gas canister. Police detained a number of people from the street as well as from their homes, searched their phones and examined the residency papers of refugees, arresting those without papers or whose residency periods had expired.
Police only allowed Hassan’s father to attend the burial on Sunday and banned anyone else from attending, the neighbor said. She added that the security presence in the area lessened on Monday, but that police are continuing to conduct patrols in the area and many Sudanese residents are afraid to leave their homes.
The dead child’s aunt, who is an asylum seeker from Darfur and has lived in Egypt since 2018, told Mada Masr that the area in which they live is “very bad and there is no safety in it.” “Our children are beaten, harassed and abused. We are afraid to send them to the supermarket. What is happening to us in Egypt is very difficult. The UN did not respond to us. We stood before UNHCR and they brought out the police even though we were protesting silently,” she said.
Faced with frequent attacks, refugees in Egypt often ask for resettlement to safer neighborhoods. Yet those demands are commonly ignored.
The source involved in organizing Sunday’s protest recalled his request to be resettled to a safer area after several Egyptians attacked his 12-year-old brother with a knife in the Masaken Othman neighborhood in 2017. In response, the Psycho-Social Services and Training Institute in Cairo, a partner organization of UNHCR that provides medical and social services to refugees, sent a representative to take down their details; however, the organization did not provide any alternative housing, the source said.
A Sudanese refugee who has lived in Egypt since 2016 told Mada Masr that she has been living on the street since October, when she was kicked out of her home in Ain Shams after she was sexually assaulted inside the house. She said more than one hospital refused to treat her after the rape and she eventually sought refuge at Doctors Without Borders. When she tried to filed a police report about her rape she says they reportedly told her, “Get our of here blackie. We won’t open a case against one of our own men.”
The refugees added that sexual assault happens to many refugees who work inside people’s homes. “We are severely insulted in Egypt. If we left the houses where we work they would not pay us. There is rape at work, and harassment on the street where I am called racist slurs. We want to leave this country, we want safety, we are exhausted.”