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Egypt No Longer Safe Haven for Refugees

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Ghada El-Khafagy fled Iraq four years ago with her two young children, in a journey that took her to Jordan, back to Baghdad and then finally to Egypt, but after two weeks of an often violent uprising, this second homeland is no longer a refuge.

"Please do not ask me about how I spent the past week. It was really terrible. I spent most of the time crying at home," the 31-year-old single mother said. "I'm afraid to go out, to see anyone. I don't know what might happen."

Her decision to leave underscores the desperate condition of many of the roughly 100,000 refugees and asylum-seekers living in Cairo. Facing shortages of food and fuel, marauding street gangs and tanks in the streets, many have decided to flee.

For years, Egypt has provided a new home for hundreds of thousands of African and Middle Eastern refugees, a safe haven in the middle of a tumultuous region.

Having risked all to escape political persecution, torture, and war, some are now willing to jeopardize their refugee status to escape the previously unimaginable unrest overwhelming the nation.

Since Egypt's widespread popular protests erupted Jan. 25, thousands have been injured and 300 killed, according to United Nations estimates.

Although Iraq isn't necessarily safer, El-Khafagy said at least she has family there and will be able to feed her daughter Nesreen, 9, and Tamer, 8.

"We can't even get bread, it's really expensive now," said El-Khafagy, who lives in the Masr Gadida neighborhood of Cairo. "So I have reduced the amount of meals we have per day. As for me I only have one meal per day, but the problem is feeding my children."

She has asked neighbors to borrow money, but with banks shut down and ATMs looted or empty, they could only offer to bring a bit of food.

Like most businesses, the UN's local refugee office has been closed for more than a week. As of last Sunday when banks and some businesses reopened, no one was answering the phone at the UN Refugee Agency's (UNHCR) Cairo offices and there was no information or emergency contact number given on the automated answering service. An operator who answered the emergency line at the international offices in Switzerland would only say that headquarters were closed on the weekends and would reopen for inquiries Monday.

Unable to inquire about her application to be transferred to a third country, or the consequences of returning to Iraq, El-Khafagy planned to take advantage of Iraq's free evacuation flights.

"Yes I'm taking a risk and this would definitely affect my case but I can't expect anything from the UN and the situation in Egypt is not stable," she said.

The UNHCR assists more than 40,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers of the estimated 100,000 refugees of concern in Egypt, according to the organization's website.

UNHCR's closure has left employees of many smaller refugee organizations fielding frantic calls for help.

Amir Heinitz, team leader for resettlement and legal aid at St. Andrew's Refugee Services, says he feels powerless.

"At 8am, after a night interrupted by pistol and machine gun shots and loud arguments between pro-Mubarak and pro-democracy Egyptians on my street, I was woken up by a phone call from one of the Somali community leaders from the low-class Cairo neighborhood Ard el-Liwa. 'Amir, our people are starving, we don't know what to do. Some of the Egyptian landlords have threatened to evict us from our apartments, if we don't pay them the rent right away,'" Heinitz wrote in an email.

Several organizations are organizing emergency relief funds and food drives in coordination with the American University in Cairo, he said.

Since police disappeared from the streets after retreating from protesters Friday Jan. 28, military and civilian patrols have tried to keep order.

But Heinitz said tanks have not deployed in Ard el-Liwa or many of the other poorer neighborhoods where refugees reside.

"Before the revolution broke out my colleagues and I were working on urgent resettlement cases of Ethiopians that had been tortured by the Ethiopian regime in ways unimaginable and for whom life in Cairo only intensifies their traumas... I was supposed to see a Sudanese woman last week whose daughter is becoming progressively paralyzed due to the lack of treatment for her leg, which was shot in Darfur," he wrote.

Om Hozeife, another Iraqi woman, planned to stay in Cairo where she has lived for six years and wait things out.

Each night her 20-year-old son goes down to the street to join the makeshift militia assembled there.

Unlike the thousands of Egyptians who have flooded downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square calling for President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, most of the refugee community stays inside and away from politics, Hozeife said.

"I hope things get better, Egypt is really good and it deserves better than this," she said, estimating that about 3,000 Iraqis have evacuated.

With her community fleeing, her business of selling Iraqi meals she cooks at home has also dwindled.

Hozeife's visa will expire next year when her son finishes university and their application for resettlement to a third country is pending.

Her relocation prospects are slim -- about 1 percent of refugees were resettled in 2009, according to UNHCR - and she also worries about getting trapped in Iraq.

"Traveling back to Baghdad right now is a problem," Hozeife said. "When you travel there, [Iraqi immigration officials] say 'OK you're already here, you're better off staying here.'"

Bags packed, El-Khawagy was determined to go to the airport Saturday after tanks and army checkpoints scared her back into the house Friday.

"If someone would tell me today things would get better and they would calm down, of course I would not leave," said El-Khawagy, who, displaced again, is hoping to return to the country she's called home for four years.

But unsatisfied with the government's concessions and Mubarak's insistence that he will "die on the soil of Egypt," many demonstrators say they will not go home until the president resigns. It is unclear whether a US-backed transition government led by newly-appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief, will be enough to appease them.

"I'd be the first one to return even if I didn't get any reply from the UN," El-Khawagy said. "As soon as I find out that Tahrir Square is empty, I'll be the first one to return."