Egypt's Other Demonstrations: What is the UN Refugee Agency Doing?


Note: The content of this article is not based on interviews, and relies heavily on previous work experience with refugee communities in Egypt. The observations are the author's own reflections and do not represent the views of or affiliation with the UNHCR.

Lesser known demonstrations in Egypt during the past couple of weeks have been held not in Tahrir Square, but in 6th of October City, not by Egyptian citizens, but by asylum seekers and refugees before the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

During the 18 days of protests leading to the ouster of former President Mubarak, communication was limited after the government shut down Internet and mobile networks. International staff at the UNHCR, like other intergovernmental agencies, international organizations, and embassies, were evacuated along with other foreigners residing in Egypt.

Was the UNHCR prepared for this emergency?

These chaotic times were cause for confusion and feelings of abandonment as refugees and asylum seekers could not access the sole agency responsible for many of their concerns. With landlines still functioning, an emergency hotline was set up at the UNHCR; however, many expressed that they nonetheless faced challenges in accessing the office this way, while some said they reached busy signals when trying to call. Many expressed frustration with the quality of communication and a sense of angst about food shortages, and their security, health, and legal status.

More recently, as citizens and eventually foreign staff have been returning to work, the UNHCR has resumed some of its services. The UNHCR has also been distributing emergency financial and medical assistance in the aftermath of the revolution. Meanwhile, numerous refugees and asylum seekers have demonstrated in front of the office.

The UNHCR in Cairo is no stranger to demonstrations, which are usually peacefully held by groups of the same nationality, or with similar legal concerns. But these days, UNHCR staff have been evacuated from the office on a few occasions as a result of some of the less-than-peaceful demonstrations that have transpired in recent weeks. Protestors have attacked members of security posted at the UNHCR office, and security thwarted an attempt to penetrate the compound. The UNHCR has even sent staff home as the office has become inundated with growing numbers of demonstrators.

What are the demonstrators' demands? It appears that resettlement to a third country is a common request, which has been the case in demonstrations at the UNHCR even prior to the revolution. Some refugees who are recognized under the 1969 Organization for African Unity (OAU) Convention, presuming no hope for resettlement, have requested nexus interviews for another chance at 1951 Convention recognition, which they may view as a possible path toward resettlement. Others may simply want a pending service to be accelerated, increased assistance, or a reexamination of their claim.

But, these demands are no different from the demonstrations the UNHCR in Cairo has witnessed in the past. Following the revolution, why have demonstrators grown in number, resorted to violence, and brought on evacuations of the office?

As the UNHCR returns to work, it faces the anger and disappointment of those who participate in these demonstrations. Perhaps these feelings of having been ignored or forgotten during the unrest in Egypt have caused a greater rift between the UNHCR and its persons of concern. It is also possible that this new climate of demanding rights has been contagious, and that post-revolution Egypt has become a space for expressing these demands with the freedom that the 25th of January hoped to introduce.

The most important question to consider now is: How can the UNHCR and its persons of concern repair their relationship?

Photo Credit: Dalia Malek