By Pesha Magid
An Oromo asylum seeker died in Cairo last week after attempting to help two men who set themselves on fire during a protest in front of a United Nations office.
The protest outside the UNHCR’s office in 6th of October City called for the UN refugee agency to end its alleged discriminatory treatment of Oromo refugees.
Most Oromo refugees in Egypt come from Ethiopia, where they make up the largest ethnic group. The Ethiopian government responded to Oromo protests with violence late last year, intensifying an ongoing crackdown against them. Human Rights Watch estimated in June that over 400 Oromo have been killed since November 2015, with thousands injured, tens of thousands arrested and hundreds forcibly disappeared.
Mohamed Ademo, a Washington DC-based Oromo journalist, who has been following the case closely, told Mada Masr that Asli Nure was injured while trying to help two men who were later hospitalized, whose identities remain unknown.
Video footage of the incident was shared on social media, showing large amounts of smoke and people screaming.
The UNHCR released a statement saying it, “deeply regrets the tragic passing of an Ethiopian Oromo asylum-seeker on 26 July 2016, following a violent incident outside UNHCR office in Cairo.” The statement made no reference to the protest.
The UNHCR office will be closed until next week. The UN agency’s spokesperson Tarik Artaz told Mada Masr the closure is a temporary measure to guarantee the safety of staff members and asylum seekers coming to the offices.
Artaz says UNHCR security staff helped extinguish the fire and transported the injured to hospital. The office is working closely with hospital staff and the authorities in relation to the incident, he adds.
But Ademo claims the response from the UNHCR was lacking.
“It is even more tragic that the UNHCR's response to all of this is to close its office. The appropriate course of action should have been to thoroughly investigate protesters’ grievances and what led to this deadly episode,” he says.
When asked about how the UNHCR is addressing Oromo concerns they are being discriminated against, with their applications for refugee status commonly either ignored or denied, Artaz says the agency is in touch with Oromo community figures concerning their grievances, but would not disclose any details.
Artaz and the UNHCR as a whole categorically deny Oromo refugees face any discriminatory treatment. “We process every claim according to UNHCR standard procedures. I want to stress that it’s an individual process and not a group-based approach,” says Artaz.
But Oromo community leaders have been saying for months that they face unfair treatment. Abdul Kadir, the secretary general of Oromo Refugees Egypt, a community organizing center for Oromo refugees, first spoke to Mada Masr in April about Oromo protests at the UNHCR office in Cairo, which continued for a couple of weeks. At the time Kadir and his organization had just begun negotiations with the UNHCR and they have since taken a step back from active protests. But he says palpable anger against the UNHCR remains.
“Many Oromo are rejected. Every week it’s 40 to 50 people who are rejected. More than 99 percent have been rejected, so people are angry, they are not happy with the UNHCR,” he claims.
Kadir says many Oromo refugees in Cairo have been accused by the Ethiopian government of belonging to the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF). The OLF is an armed group that was designated a terrorist organization by Ethiopia’s parliament in 2011. According to HRW, while the group has minimal military capacity, its existence is often used by the Ethiopian government to justify the repression of Oromo.
Many Oromo refugees in Cairo are either connected to the OLF or accused of connections, Kadir says, meaning they are unable to return to Ethiopia amid the ongoing crackdown.
He attributes the large number of rejected applications from Oromo for refugee status to the similar stories they tell, which he says makes UNHCR officials suspicious. However, he adds that many Oromo refugees wait years for a response after their initial status determination interviews with the UNHCR, in comparison to the average 20 months the UNHCR promises.
Feven Basada has been waiting for almost three years for the result of her refugee status interview. She says the stress of not knowing has caused her to become sick and unable to work, and that she is only able to survive because of the support of her church.
Basada left Ethiopia because her family was being targeted by the government. “I don’t know if anyone is alive or not,” she says. “You don’t have anyone. You don’t have a country, you don’t have anything. That’s why I have this sickness,” she adds. Basada lives alone, and often, when she calls the UNHCR office, no one answers. “I want to live like a human being, it is very hard … very difficult for women especially.”
Marwa Hashem, assistant public information officer for the UNHCR in Cairo, told Mada Masr that each refugee application has to be evaluated on an individual basis and the agency works with over 181,000 asylum seekers and refugees, which may explain the long wait. Hashem adds that staff shortages and increasing numbers of asylum seekers have made agency efforts to reduce the wait time difficult.
“Cases of asylum seekers with specific vulnerabilities may be adjudicated faster than others under certain circumstances, based on identified needs in each case,” Hashem explained, adding that the UNHCR does not discriminate against groups of people based on affiliation or ethnicity.
But others who work in the field disagree. A source from an international refugee organization told Mada Masr anonymously that he often sees Syrian refugees take priority over other groups.
“It's been my experience that pretty much all refugee organizations right now have a dual focus — one for Syrian refugees and one for non-Syrian refugees. People will look at meeting a quota for non-Syrians, and they will dedicate half of their resources to Syrians,” he explains.
He says that the reason for this is a combination of the large influx of Syrian refugees into Egypt and funding priorities. In a world of tight funding, he explains, organizations have to make choices in order to cover their costs.
Whether or not this is the case, Oromo refugees are beginning to feel hopeless, according to Ademo.
“The depth of their frustration and grievance with lengthy procedures that keep ending in rejection is heartbreaking. The desperation has already led dozens to perish in the Mediterranean while attempting to reach Europe,” he says. A boat crossing the Mediterranean Sea from Egypt to Europe capsized in April and at least 400 refugees, largely from Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia, drowned.
Ademo says many Oromo still in Cairo feel hopeless and “some have publicly suggested they have nothing left to lose, and may set themselves alight.”