In the winter, the early mornings in Cairo are almost cool. The pollution, which normally hangs over the streets like a heavy yellow blanket, is light and at this hour the city is still and quiet. Long before it is properly day, the asylum seekers gather at the gates of the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. There are the Dinkas of Sudan with their very long legs, and the elegant high-cheek-boned Somalis; some of the Sierra Leoneans have no arms or hands, the rebels there having decided that mutilating civilians is an effective way of terrorizing those who might be tempted to support the government.
Then there are the Ethiopians, whose ancient allegiance to Haile Selassie has branded them as traitors to the regimes that followed his, and men and women from Rwanda and Burundi, who have somehow managed to escape the killings, and other Sudanese, dissident survivors of torture in Khartoum’s security headquarters. They come at dawn to wait, in the hope that their names may feature on the new lists of those called for interview to determine whether or not they will be recognized as bona fide refugees, with a justified fear of persecution if they return home; or in the fear that they may learn that their appeal has failed and their file is closed, so that the future contains only statelessness or deportation.
The politics of the modern refugee world are not on their side. By the early 1990s, Africans seemed to be on the move, running from the civil wars that are consuming the continent, crossing from one country to another in search of sanctuary, seeking recognition under the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which alone can confer a measure of protection, a little money, and the possibility of eventual resettlement in another country. According to UNHCR, the long wars of borders and ethnic supremacy have in recent years turned some 13 million Africans into displaced people. Many have gone to camps in Kenya and Tanzania; others live along the borders of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. But a steady flow have migrated north, drawn by Egypt’s open door policy, not knowing that Egypt has neither the means nor the intention of looking after those they so hospitably allow in, and that the rest of the world has no plans to give them refuge either. Cairo, a city with one of the biggest refugee populations in the world, has become a waiting room. Neither beginning nor end of their odyssey, Cairo is where the international undertakings toward those who seek asylum are most clearly failing, and where the deficiencies of the UN agency set up fifty years ago this past December to care for them are most visibly exposed.
Most countries—the United States and Britain among them—carry out their own procedures for deciding who is and who is not a refugee, but Egypt is one of over fifty countries scattered all over the world who …