"Who can be added": the effects of refugee status determination and third country resettlement processes on the marriage strategies, rites, and customs of the southern Sudanese in Cairo.

Author:Currie, Lorraine


This study, based on ethnographic research, examines how refugee status determination and third country resettlement processes influence the marriage practices of the southern Sudanese refugee community in Cairo. The study showed that because of their inability to attain socio-economic integration into the host community combined with the growing insecurity of the environment of Cairo for refugees, many southern Sudanese have had to reevaluate their traditional marriage practices and family values to qualify for resettlement and escape to a better life. For example, the expectation of resettlement can directly affect courtship strategies, dowry payments, and couples' decisions regarding having children. Guidelines of UNHCR and/or resettlement countries play a considerable role in these decisions, as do rumours about marriage certification and difficulty in finding suitable partners in the West. In some instances, marriage becomes a business arrangement to secure resettlement. Refugee status denial sometimes has a negative impact on marriage, with spouses blaming each other for performing badly at the status determination interview, leading in some cases to violence and divorce. Sudanese youth with denied refugee status have particular difficulties as their hopes for a brighter future are dashed and with it their prospects of a normal family life.


Cette etude, basee sur la recherche ethnographique, examine comment la determination du statut de refugie et le processus de reinstallation dans un pays tiers influencent les pratiques en matiere du mariage dans la communaute de refugies de Soudanais du sud vivant au Caire. L'etude a demontre qu'en raison de leur incapacite d'atteindre l'integration socio-economique dans la communaute d'accueil et de l'insecurite grandissante de l'environnement du Caire pour les refugies, beaucoup de Soudanais du sud ont du revoir leurs pratiques traditionnelles entourant le mariage ainsi que leurs valeurs familiales afin de satisfaire aux criteres d'egibilite pour la reinstallation et pouvoir acceder a une vie meilleure. Par exemple, l'espoir de la reinstallation peut directement affecter les strategies pour faire la cour, les paiements de la dot et les decisions des couples quant au fair d'avoir des enfants. Les directives du HCR et/ou des pays de reinstallation, ainsi que les rumeurs concernant la certification de mariage et la difficulte a trouver des partenaires convenables a l'Ouest, jouent un role considerable dans ces decisions. Dans certains cas, le mariage devient un arrangement d'affaires dans le but d'obtenir le droit de reinstallation. Le refus du statut de refugie a quelquefois un impact negatif sur le mariage, avec les epoux se reprochant mutuellement d'avoir fait mauvaise figure a l'interview de determination de statut, menant dans certains cas a la violence et au divorce. Les jeunes soudanais, a qui le statut de refugie a ete refuse, presentent des difficultes particulieres, vu que leurs espoirs d'un avenir plus brillant sont aneantis et avec cela leurs perspectives d'une vie familiale normale.


"Who can be added" through marriage to the file of a person recognized as a refugee under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mandate in the context of Cairo's considerable refugee population has become a security and livelihood issue for the exiled southern Sudanese community, who are on the margins of and unable to integrate into Egyptian society. Reservations entered by Egypt to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) severely restrict refugees from exercising their socio-economic rights. (1) Refugees, even if born in Egypt, are not eligible for citizenship. The Four Freedoms reciprocal agreement signed in 2004 ostensibly granting Sudanese and Egyptian nationals freedom of movement, residence, work, and ownership of property in each other's countries is yet to be fully implemented. As a result of these constraints, at the time of this study, third-country resettlement was seen as the only durable solution for this group of people. Voluntary repatriation was not a feasible option until January 2005 with the conclusion of the comprehensive peace agreement between the Sudanese government and the Sudan's Peoples' Liberation Movement. (2) Furthermore, in the aftermath of the attack of September 11, 2001, the outlet of resettlement to Western countries was practically suspended, which created a huge backlog that was not cleared until 2004. This resulted in a larger, more visible Sudanese refugee population in Cairo, in turn leading to a series of police raids and detentions. The situation of the Sudanese refugee community in Cairo was further exacerbated by the earlier 1997 UNHCR urban refugee policy, which limited assistance and promoted self-reliance of urban refugees on the basis of budget cuts, and not on protection issues.

Although the Canadian and Australian embassies in Cairo do resettle around one thousand closed file cases per year through their private sponsorship and family reunification programs, official recognition by UNHCR under the Refugee Convention for the most part is required to meet the resettlement criteria. Thus, marriage to someone eligible for resettlement has become one of the only remaining options for those who fall under the local integration category or for closed file cases to qualify for resettlement. (3) The quest to be "added" amid the insecure and hostile environment of Cairo is beginning to impact marital relations.

This paper considers the effects of refugee status determination (RSD) and third-county resettlement processes on the marital strategies, rites, and customs of the southern Sudanese refugee community in Cairo. There is a paucity of academic research on the subject of refugees living in large urban agglomerates in the developing world. Previous studies of marriage among Sudanese populations have focused on how displacement in general has influenced marriage practices, rather than on specific variables such as RSD and resettlement procedures. By adding a different dimension using an "urban refugee" framework, this study aims to contribute new information and insight that will complement existing refugee literature, as well as stimulate interest in refugee issues that require further exploration. Furthermore, this research hopes to offer UNHCR and its resettlement partners in Cairo a more full-bodied understanding of the impact their policies have on the culture and behaviour of refugee communities, and subsequently this paper attempts to inform policy.

This paper is based on research that was conducted in Cairo over a six-month period in 2003 under the auspices of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies Program of the American University in Cairo. The study yielded qualitative data from semi-structured interviews with twenty-two southern Sudanese men and women; interviews with UNHCR, embassy and NGO officials; and participant observation. (4) The research findings are analyzed under the different stages of the marriage cycle, namely: Courtship and Choice of Partner, Dowry Payment and Marriage Ceremonies, Marital Life and Children, and Divorce and Remarriage. Here the term "refugee" is used in it broadest sense at times to include "asylum seekers" and "displaced persons" who are living in refugee-type situations. Pseudonyms have replaced the real names of the refugees cited in this paper.

Southern Sudanese Refugees in Cairo

Between 1998 and 2005, UNHCR Regional Office in Cairo (RO Cairo) received a total of 78,916 asylum applications, of which 32,996 were recognized and 19,409 were resettled to a third country. From 1998 to 2002, the overall recognition rate fluctuated between 24 and 42 per cent, rising to 63 per cent in 2003. The marked increase in the recognition rate was linked to RO Cairo's decision to apply a wider interpretation of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention definition in the RSD process. Presently, those accepted under the Refugee Convention are eligible for resettlement, while those accepted under the OAU Convention are settled in Egypt. At the end of 2005, there were 18,946 refugees registered with UNHCR in Egypt. The majority of the recognized refugees were from Sudan (71 per cent) and Somalia (21 per cent). The remaining 8 per cent was composed of some thirty-three other nationalities, mainly from Africa. The gender ratio of the refugee population was 61 per cent male and 39 per cent female; 34 per cent were children under the age of eighteen. There were also 11,000 asylum seekers registered with RO Cairo (mainly of Sudanese origin), whose refugee status had yet to be determined. (5)

Egypt is state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol as well as the OAU Convention of 1969. Despite Egypt's formal commitment to refugee protection, the country has no domestic refugee legislation for governing asylum and has essentially delegated RSD and the welfare of refugees to UNHCR. At the time of this study, applying for asylum in Cairo could take up to fourteen months, as the UNHCR was overburdened and underfunded. (6) Currently, the whole process takes about three months, as RSD has been suspended for Sudanese. The suspension of RSD for Sudanese started in mid-2004, pending the outcome of the peace agreement. Presently, Sudanese applicants are registered and granted temporary protection. (7)

RO Cairo provides recognized refugees and Sudanese asylum seekers with medical care and educational grants for their children. Only the most vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers receive small monthly subsistence allowances. Refugees who meet the established resettlement criteria, such as the inability to integrate locally, extreme vulnerability, or protection problems that cannot be resolved in Egypt, are referred to one of RO Cairo's resettlement partners, which include the US, Australia, Canada, and Finland. (8) As UNHCR recognition...

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