A group of Eritrean refugees held a demonstration on Sunday at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in 6 October City on the outskirts of Cairo, protesting what they describe as inadequate protection and help from the UN body.
Around a hundred refugees stood outside the building in the morning, some holding banners. Although the protest was largely peaceful, tensions broke out mid-morning between the protesters and refugees of other nationalities who were angry at not being able to access UNHCR’s services.
The UN body had suspended its normal refugee reception service, saying that the protesters had blocked access to the area and impeded its work.
Tense arguments led to minor clashes, which began when a Sudanese refugee threw stones at the protesters. As a result, one Sudanese man was injured and taken away by ambulance, while one Eritrean protester was arrested by Egyptian police at the scene.
UNHCR's office was also the site of refugee protests in 2011, after services were closed down for several weeks during the 2011 uprising.
Eritrean protesters told Ahram Online on Sunday that they were protesting in frustration at a number of issues.
"UNHCR is not working according to its mandate; it’s not transparent," said a protester who declined to give his name.
"Interviews [with UNHCR to determine status and support] are delayed for months. We are left without any financial assistance. How can we survive? Refugee status determination interviews are supposed to happen after a maximum of six months [upon arrival in Egypt]. Some people have been waiting for 19 months."
Another major concern was the drop in the number of permanent resettlements outside of Egypt granted to Eritreans. "The year before last, 260 Eritreans were resettled. Then last year, only 116. We need to know why they decreased the quota," Meron, 29, told Ahram Online. “The situation for Eritreans is really desperate."
A number of protesters told Ahram Online they were victims of trafficking, kidnapped in Sudan and taken to Sinai in Egypt, where they were tortured until members of the Eritrean diaspora community sent money to ransom them.
"There is no protection from UNHCR. No one has helped us. The world knows, UNHCR knows what happens in Sinai. Every week more people arrive from there," said Gibrali, 25, who lifted up his shirt to show deep scars on his back which he said were from torture at the hands of Sinai traffickers.
"Since we came from Sinai, we are living 15, 20 people in one room. We are scared. Some of us have seen the Bedouin [traffickers] in Cairo. We told the police about one man, but they released him. We told UNHCR, but they do nothing. We need protection."
In a telephone interview with Ahram Online on Sunday, Karmen Sakhr, senior protection officer at UNHCR, said that the organisation's deputy representative Elizabeth Tan had recently met with leaders of the Eritrean community and listened to their concerns. "If people have complaints, this is not the right way to approach the issue; not by blocking access and disturbing the workflow for others."
“We do acknowledge the problem [of trafficking in Sinai] but we also have to rely on national authorities on these issues. We stand ready to provide legal support if refugees wish to make a complaint, but we can’t prosecute traffickers ourselves. Victims have to go to the national authorities,” Sakhr told Ahram Online.