Persecuted, unlawfully arrested, and murdered in their homeland, Oromo refugees flee Ethiopia only to face rejection in Egypt. After two men immolated themselves in Cairo last month, Valentina Primo delves into one of the nation's most neglected refugee crises.
Dawn had just broken when Abdallah* heard someone banging on the door. Staggering his way to the entrance, his eyes still half-opened, he turned the key, unwittingly unaware that it was the last thing he would lay his eyes on. His wife, still sleeping in the bedroom, heard the gunshot and abruptly woke up.
“My brother was 27 when they murdered him,” says Abdulkadir Gumi from his office in Cairo, 2,900 km far from the Ethiopian-Kenyan border where his brother Abdallah used to live. “We were both human rights activists, and we used to report on the abuses of the Ethiopian government against the Oromo population,” he says.
The Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, have been fleeing persecution as they are arrested, tortured, and killed – sometimes preemptively- based on their actual or suspected opposition to the government. According to a report by Amnesty International, even expressions of Oromo culture and heritage have been interpreted as manifestations of dissent. “At the borders, innocent civilians are killed every month,” he says. “Sometimes, they just break in through the window and shoot while people are sleeping. That day, I knew I had to leave.”
Gumi hired smugglers at the Kenyan border and, once in Nairobi, took a flight to Cairo, where he co-founded the United Oromo Refugees Association (UORA). It was 2008 and there were about 500 Oromo members living in Egypt; today, community organisations estimate them at around 6,000. “Most of us have lost a brother, a father, or a friend who was killed by secret agents,” Gumi says. “But when coming here, we have no embassy or anyone to turn to. So we created the organization to overcome our challenges and discuss the issues affecting Oromo refugees,” he says.
But as they flee persecution and seek refuge in Egypt, many are faced with rejection as they are denied refugee status by the UNHCR – a recognition that allows them to live lawfully in Egypt and offers them protection from deportation. Ultimately, it could also open the door for resettlement in other countries, but humanitarian organisations point out that the reality is that only one in 30 refugees are in fact resettled. "About 50 people are rejected each week; it’s a black day for us every time,” Gumi says. Last July, two asylum seekers died after they immolated themselves in front of the UNHCR office in Cairo, in protest of the large-scale rejections of refugee status applications. One of them was a woman reportedly trying to assist the man who set himself ablaze.
“There were people who refused to leave the UNCHR office; we advised them not to, but they decided to stay. Some of them sprayed gasoline on themselves and a man and a woman died later in the hospital,” he explains. “For us, rejection means that we are not only rejected in our own country but also by a humanitarian organisation, so there is no hope for us; people commit suicide.”
The UORA office is an empty two-story apartment nestled in the heart of Cairo’s Arab Maadi, where other refugees also live. On its bright green walls, posters written in Oromo language list the principles - such as self-determination, freedom, and equality - the organisation hails. “We think there is a lack of understanding of the issues we are facing,” says the organisation’s Chairman, Abdallah Jamal. Graduated in natural sciences, the 29-year-old teacher was working at a school in Ethiopia when he was accused of teaching politics and imprisoned for two years.
“While I was in prison, I did all I could to escape and leave my country. I didn’t feel safe, I knew that either they would kill me because of my opinions or they would arrest me again,” he recalls. Having paid smugglers to reach the Sudanese border, Jamal arrived in Egypt in 2011. Like Gumi, Jamal was granted refugee status but does not have a job. Sometimes, his wife’s occasional work as a cleaner helps the family income, but it is often not enough. “Up until 2013, about 20 people were recognised as refugees, but since 2014, we are facing massive rejections; I believe that less than 10 people were accepted in this period. We know that not every Ethiopian is a refugee, but what we are asking for is fair treatment with regards to other refugees,” he explains.
In an interview with CairoScene, UNHCR’s spokesperson Tarik Argaz denied there being differential treatment of Oromo refugees. “There is no specific procedure for them because all nationalities go through the same process to determine whether they are refugees,” he said, as he stressed that all people seeking asylum are protected for the period until their status is determined. "We register and provide asylum-seekers that approach our office with a card (known as the Yellow card), which helps them in their daily interaction with the authorities and prevents them from being deported out of the country," he said.
However, he recognised that the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) procedure often takes too long. “It is true that the process can be sometimes lengthy because of the increasing number of applicants. But it is more streamlined now; in fact, we managed to decrease the RSD waiting period in 2016 from 28 to 16 months, despite the fast growing number of applicants and funding challenges,” he added. According to data provided by UNHCR, there are currently 184,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt and, only in the first eight months of 2016, 22,000 registered with UNHCR.
Sitting in front of Jamal at the UORA office, Ilili Jamal still waits. She applied to obtain the UNHCR refugee card when she arrived in Egypt, three years ago. The 30-year-old woman decided to flee her home country after the government imprisoned her for five months, accused of aiding the OLF (Oromo Liberation Front), an armed insurgent group deemed a terrorist organisation by Ethiopia’s parliament in 2011. According to Human Rights Watch, Ethiopian government officials often cite OLF activities or links to justify the repression of Oromo. “Tens of thousands of Oromo individuals have been targeted for arbitrary detention, torture, and other abuses even when there is no evidence linking them to the OLF,” the organisation says in a report.
“Since the beginning, we have had many meetings with the Oromo community to listen to their claims,” Argaz says. “We have been through different discussions to try to arrive at solutions. It's still an ongoing process, but most of the people who were demonstrating felt there was a response, and most of those people went back home because they saw that there is an ongoing process.”
Last week, representatives of OSRA (the Oromo Self-Help Refugee Association), held a meeting with UNHCR’s deputy head, who promised to revise mass rejections. However, Oromo community organisations are skeptical about the outcome. “The treatment of Oromo has been unfair for a long time. We understand that they have no capacity, but we are worried and frustrated about the mass rejections our people are facing,” says OSRA’s Secretary General, Mohammed Amman. “We hope they will take a different direction now,” he adds.
Meanwhile, the situation in Ethiopia is only getting worse. “Last week, 100 people were killed during a demonstration in a single day. Every day, Oromo people are getting shot in the head or in their neck. It was not like this when I left. The government is now using full force against the Oromo,” Amman says.
Amnesty International reports that, between 2011 and 2014, at least 5,000 Oromos have been arrested, including thousands of peaceful protestors and hundreds of opposition political party members, but also singers, writers, and poets who allegedly criticise the government or incite people through their work. “People wearing traditional Oromo clothing have been arrested on the accusation that this demonstrated a political agenda,” the organisation says in their report, ‘Because I am Oromo’.
The human rights watchdog indicates that signs of dissent are sought out among Oromo individuals and, sometimes pre-emptively, suppressed. In many cases, actual or suspected dissenters were detained without charge, killed by security services during protests and in detention.
“Ethiopia is just a map,” Jamal explains. “It’s a boundary that consists of several tribes; each one has its specific situation. The Oromo don’t speak Ethiopian; we have a different culture and a different language; we want self-determination, we want to rule ourselves, and this creates friction.”
Photography by @MO4Network's #MO4Productions.
Photographer: Ahmed Najeeb.
*In order to preserve their identity, some names have been changed.