Amid dam row, Ethiopian refugees in Egypt protest rising xenophobia

Hazel Haddon, Sunday 9 Jun 2013

Ethiopian refugees complain of increasingly frequent assaults and harassment amid Egypt's ongoing dispute with Addis Ababa over latter's planned Nile dam project

Amid dam row, Ethiopian refugees in Egypt protest rising xenophobia
Dozens of Ethiopians protest in front of the Egypt UNHCR office on Sunday. (Photo: Al-Ahram Arabic news website)

Dozens of Ethiopian refugees protested on Sunday outside the Egypt office of UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Cairo's 6 October City to demand protection from what they describe as increasingly frequent xenophobic attacks by Egyptians.

Protesters, mostly from the Oromo ethnic group, said that members of their community had faced several violent attacks in Egypt in recent weeks.

The apparent trend comes against the backdrop of mounting tensions between Ethiopia and Egypt over a plan by the former to build a dam on the Blue Nile.

"We have some reports of people being attacked just because of their nationality," protest organiser Jeylan Kassim told Ahram Online.

"We need the UNHCR's protection; and we need the UNHCR to raise the awareness of the Egyptian community [about our plight]."

Egyptian media has been dominated by speculation regarding the new Nile dam project since Ethiopian engineers began partially diverting the course of Blue Nile on 28 May to prepare a site for the new dam's construction.

Last week, fiery rhetoric reached a climax when a group of leading Egyptian politicians, speaking at a meeting with the president, suggested sabotage or covert interference in Ethiopian affairs to prevent the dam from negatively affecting Egypt’s share of Nile water – without realising the meeting was being broadcast live on television.

Ethiopian refugees at Sunday's protest argued that they were suffering the brunt of mounting Egypt-Ethiopia tensions.

"Two of my friends were beaten; one was sent to hospital, but they refused to treat him," claimed Mulis, an Ethiopian refugee in Egypt since 2011, while speaking to Ahram Online.

According to UNHCR Deputy Regional Representative for Egypt Elizabeth Tan, a number of Ethiopian refugees in recent weeks have reported being evicted from their homes or losing their jobs because of their nationality, along with facing difficulties obtaining medical care at Egyptian hospitals.

"The UNHCR is concerned about these allegations and calls on all Egyptians to differentiate between the political dispute with the Ethiopian government and their treatment of Ethiopian refugees who fled their country seeking asylum in Egypt," commented Tan in a written statement to Ahram Online.

"I was threatened by the owner of the building I live in," Mulis told Ahram Online. "He said, 'since you are cutting the river from us, I won't give you shelter'."

"But we're not part of the problem," he added. "We're against the Ethiopian government, and against its policies."

Around 2,500 Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers, of different ethnic groups, are currently registered with UNHCR Cairo.

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