Center for Migration and Refugee Studies

Author's Department

Center for Migration and Refugee Studies

Document Type

Research Article

Publication Title

Forced Migrations and Refugee Studies

Publication Date



On September 29, 2005, dozens of Sudanese asylum seekers and refugees initiated a sit­in near the offices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Cairo to protest UNHCR’s ongoing suspension of refugee status determination procedures as well as their conditions in Cairo, a situation they considered unbearable. Their number quickly grew to an average of 1,800 to 2,500 and remained at those levels throughout the following three months. Periodic meetings and negotiations among the sit­in leadership, UNHCR, and a number of other parties failed to meet the demonstrators’ demands or to result in a satisfactory end to the protest. In the early morning hours of December 30, 2005, thousands of Egyptian security personnel forcibly removed the protestors to various holding centers in and around Cairo. Tragically, 27 refugees and asylum seekers were killed in the removal, at least half being children and women. A 28 th person, a 14­year­old boy, died in hospital a month later, and one man committed suicide in detention. Most card­holding refugees and asylum seekers were released within a few days, but more than six hundred remained in detention until their status was clarified between UNHCR and the government of Egypt. The tragedy continued for weeks, with families trying to find loved ones, children being left unaccompanied overnight or held in separate facilities from their parent(s), and people not knowing whether their relatives were in another detention facility, in hospital, or in the morgue. Two months after the event, no one remained in detention, but several children were missing and families still were not allowed to take possession of the bodies of relatives for burial. Calls by national and international human rights organizations for an international inquiry into the deaths were rejected by Egypt, which was rumored to have initiated an internal investigation. The forced removal and its aftermath elicited criticism locally and abroad, strained relations between UNHCR and the government of Egypt, and exacerbated an atmosphere of distrust between UNHCR and Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers. Egyptian and international media coverage of the event was replete with charges of police brutality and countercharges of racism and abuse of Egyptian hospitality by “drunken” and “disease­ridden” refugees and other xenophobic statements. At the same time, human rights and other civil society organizations worked hard to provide needed assistance by tracing families, identifying the deceased, and raising funds to aid the victims. The Mufti Dr. Ali Gomaa issued a fatwa approving Sadaqah (charitable giving) for all Sudanese refugees during Eid Al­Adha. There is little information in the public domain on what happened that evening or what led up to it. Many questions surrounding the issue remain unanswered. Who was protesting in the first place, and why? Why did they reject several offers by UNHCR? Could UNHCR the government of Egypt have offered the protesters more? Why was such excessive force used in the removal, and how did so many people die? Why were autopsy reports not released? Why did it take so long before bodies of victims were released to their relatives for burial, and why were none allowed to be transferred to Sudan for burial? Why was there so little information and care in the immediate aftermath, when dazed asylum seekers and refugees were left wandering the streets of Cairo? Who is responsible and who should be held accountable for which aspect of the problem? Could this tragedy have been avoided and, most important, could it happen again? One week after the tragedy, FMRS initiated an investigative research in an effort to find answers to some of these questions. From the start, the purpose of the investigation was not so much to assign responsibility as it was to promote a thorough understanding of the problem: why it happened, what are the issues, and what could have been done or should be done in the future and by whom in order to prevent such a tragedy. This is not the first effort by FMRS faculty, students, and researchers to shed light on the particular issues and problems facing refugees in Egypt and the region, including the Sudanese. The report builds on previous FMRS research and on other sources. 1 In order to identify the particular events that occasioned the three­month sit­in, the removal of the protestors, and the aftermath, an FMRS team of more than 10 researchers gathered eye­ witness testimonies, met with officials from UNHCR and the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and relied on information from a number of non­governmental organizations active in providing assistance to the asylum seeker and refugee community in Egypt. FMRS undertook the complicated task of wading through a large amount of sometimes contradictory and confusing bits of information to corroborate testimonies and newspaper accounts, to separate fact from rumor, and to navigate the passions on the different sides of this event and the issues that gave rise to it. This report is the result of more than two months of these efforts. Preliminary findings were presented on February 8, 2006, at an FMRS Wednesday Seminar and the final version—insofar as any analysis of this event can be final—is in your hands.

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