The Long Wait

On World Refugee Day, Amnesty International’s Sherif Elsayed-Ali blogs about the millions of refugees waiting year after year for a solution to their plight.

In the summer of 2001 I was working for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Cairo. I interviewed a young asylum-seeker from what was then southern Sudan. He was a towering but slim man in his late teens. He had witnessed things no one should live through.

Years before, he had seen his village burned to the ground, women raped, his family killed.

He was taken by the armed militia that had destroyed everything he knew and forced to work as a cattle herder, effectively as a slave.

It took several years before he managed to escape and when he did he left Sudan for Egypt, with no family or friends.

Like the thousands from Sudan – and other countries – who made it to Egypt each year in the early 2000s, his hope was to be resettled to another country. Egypt was a place of relative safety, away from war and systematic violence. But it was not a place to call home.

The best that refugees in Egypt could hope for was the minimum protection – not to be sent back to the places they’d fled.

But they could not work legally, study or integrate – the result was that refugees who escaped persecution and conflict in their own countries were left in limbo in a country that did not want them, waiting for resettlement to another country where they could perhaps restart their life.

Sadly, millions of refugees don’t even enjoy this minimum of protection.

Dadaab, the world’s largest refugee camp, was set up in Kenya in 1992. Today, it is home to over 465,000 Somali refugees. Refugees suffer from overcrowding, poor standards of living and no freedom of movement. Not only can they not return to their country, but Dadaab is increasingly insecure as the conflict in Somalia spills into the camp.

But the difficulties refugees face are not confined to the Middle East and Africa. In Cyprus, asylum seekers are detained in poor conditions without access to adequate medical care. Some are detained the entire time their applications are being examined.

In recent years, countries such as Italy and Spain have increased cooperation with North and West African nations to prevent asylum-seekers and migrants from reaching Europe. In the case of Italy-Libya cooperation, this led to boats full of people being pushed back to Libya where they risked torture and prolonged detention.

Refugees and asylum-seekers, like migrants, are perennial scapegoats. Politicians blame them for crime rates, joblessness and even health scares.

This in turn fuels xenophobia and increases the risk of violence against them. Refugees and asylum-seekers are vulnerable because they generally have little economic or political influence. In recent months, Greece has seen a spike in incidents of racially motivated attacks against refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants

This is why, at Amnesty International, we are determined to make the issues that affect refugees and asylum-seekers visible and to bring governments to account for how they treat them.

Earlier this month, we launched a campaign for the protection of the rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Europe called When You Don’t Exist.

You can watch our video and visit the website here. We are also campaigning for an increase in the global number of refugees being resettled, so that those in the most vulnerable situations can have a better future.

You can see a short film about Omar, a Somali refugee who left his country as a child and made his way to Libya, then when the conflict erupted in that country, to the Choucha refugee camp in Tunisia. In May of this year, Omar left for Sweden, becoming one of the small proportion of refugees around the world who get a resettlement place.

Our national sections work tirelessly to advocate for better laws and policies that protect the rights of refugees.

Over the years, Amnesty International activists have helped prevent the return of thousands of people to countries where they were at risk of serious human rights abuses. But our biggest challenge remains to fight the prevalent attitudes towards refugees and asylum-seekers.

It is now the summer of 2012, 11 years since I met that young man in Cairo. The conflict he escaped as a child eventually led to the independence of South Sudan. Conflict in Sudan on the border with South Sudan still rages and tens of thousands of civilians from the conflict-affected areas have been forced to flee as refugees to neighbouring countries.

In Africa and across the world, millions of refugees wait year after year, to no avail, for a solution to their plight. My hope is that he has is no longer waiting.