FEATURE-Egypt's African migrants dodge rocks, fight racism

By Cynthia Johnston

CAIRO, June 24 (Reuters) - Mohammad Adam al-Bakr, a Sudanese street vendor, didn't see the knife that stabbed him, and hardly knew the man who thrust it into his abdomen, leaving him bleeding on a Cairo sidewalk.

But he says he knows exactly why he was attacked while selling cheap wallets on the street outside a Cairo subway stop.

"The economy is difficult here. There is racism. It's not just against Sudanese, but any African," he said, recuperating in bed from his wounds.

African migrants in Cairo, some of them refugees fleeing war and persecution and others simply seeking better lives abroad, say they face persistent racism in Egypt, though violent attacks are rare.

They say raucous youths taunt them on the streets by yelling "oonga boonga" at them, throwing rocks and calling them names. The harassment, they say, is only getting worse as Egypt's battered economy continues to suffer.

"They don't want us here," said one Sudanese woman, who says she was beaten on the street by a stranger in an attack she attributes to racism.

As Europe and the West have fortified their borders against refugees and economic migrants, more and more Africans have found themselves stranded in countries like Egypt, unwilling or afraid to return home but unable to move on.

Dependent on tourist dollars and connected by land to war-torn Sudan, Egypt has been more lenient than other Middle Eastern states about granting African migrants entry on student or tourist visas and sympathetic about letting them stay.

But the semi-official al-Ahram newspaper voiced fears of a "foreigner crisis" in the labour market in a recent article and said African workers were filling the streets of the capital.

"There is a perception that there are so many problems at home, these migrants simply cannot be absorbed. The economy cannot afford to absorb them," said Anita Fabos, director of the Forced Migration and Refugee Studies programme at the American University in Cairo.

"The perception of Egyptians is that all these people come here as scroungers," she said.

TENSIONS RISING

Violence against migrants is not nearly as severe as mass attacks against African migrant workers in neighbouring Libya in 2000 in which officials said up to six migrants died. Media reports put the death toll higher.

But a doctor who provides medical care to a community of 20,000 African refugees and asylum-seekers registered with his Cairo clinic says violence against Africans is rising.

"It's probably one serious event a month...I mean something that requires hospitalisation or serious medical care," said Keith Russell, medical director of Joint Relief Ministries.

His patients include a family whose home was firebombed and who were stabbed as they fled, a woman attacked from behind by a man who slashed at her wrists, and a man who was unconscious for 24 hours after being attacked by a gang of youths and thrown onto railroad tracks. All of the victims were Sudanese.

Most of them, especially refugees who feel vulnerable and are afraid of being deported, do not go to the police, he said.

The United Nations refugee agency, responsible for roughly 8,500 recognised urban refugees in Egypt, said race-related violence first showed up on its radar here last year, when three violent incidents were reported.

"It's a new phenomenon. We don't recall in the previous years that refugees have been subject to racist incidents," a spokesman said, adding that the problem was still "marginal".

No one knows how many African immigrants live in Egypt, a vast country of roughly 70 million people. Most of the immigrants -- between 250,000 and several million -- are Sudanese, mainly Arabic-speaking, Muslim northerners who blend in better than refugees from the more African south or west.

A smattering of immigrants from other African countries like Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea have also made Cairo their home -- or at least a stop on the road to a better life in the West.

The newcomers say they are hassled because they are black. Though Egypt is geographically in Africa, its national identity is deeply rooted in the Arab, Muslim Middle East.

Egyptians counter there is little racism, saying Egyptians come in all colours.

"We are African also. This is one aspect of our identity. It is one of our roots," said Nabil Abdel Fattah, an analyst at the al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

"The Sudanese people are living together with Egyptian people without any discrimination," he added, saying any problems were caused by individual trouble-makers, not society.

COMPETING FOR CRUMBS

Activists say resentment against the migrants is high because of a belief that African workers undercut Egyptians in the labour market at a time when jobs are scarce and prices of basic goods are rising.

Egypt's economy has suffered in recent months as tourism -- a key foreign currency earner -- slumped in the wake of September 11 attacks on the United States and as violence in nearby Israel and the Palestinian territories spiralled.

Many of the migrants live on the fringes of Cairo's strained economy. They live up dank stairwells in crowded apartment blocks in some of Cairo's poorest neighbourhoods and share space with Egyptians who are also struggling to survive.

"There is a sort of competition between Egyptians and Sudanese," said Magda Ali, programme officer for Maan, a Sudanese women's empowerment group.

The fact that some African refugees, by applying for asylum at the United Nations, can move to the West, only fuels the resentment. Poor Egyptians rarely have that opportunity.

Bakr and another Western Sudanese man injured in the same attack say the stabbing by a neighbourhood thug they say they recognised but did not personally know followed daily harassment by nearby vendors who told them to go back to Sudan.

"I hope that as soon as I can, I will leave," said Mohammad Osman, a recognised refugee slated for resettlement to Canada.