BEIRUT: “All we wanted was our rights,” Othman, a Sudanese refugee in Lebanon who asked not to use his real name, told The Daily Star. “They weren’t giving us any answers at the [United Nations Human Right Commission] office so we decided to stage a protest.” Little did Othman know that a peaceful sit-in in front of the UNHCR office in Jnah would lead to his arrest and those of three of his fellow refugees, two of whom are still in jail to this day.
On Dec. 10 last year, Othman and around two dozen other refugees gathered blankets, bread and cardboard boxes and camped outside the U.N.’s refugee agency office to demand to know the status of their refugee and resettlement application.
Three days later, the refugees say a member of the UNHCR staff called the police to shut down the peaceful protest.
“[The staff member] came and said, ‘Get up! Get up! Your files are closed! Leave or I will call the police!’” Othman recalled.
Many dispersed, but Othman and three others remained and police came and arrested them, according to the refugees, on the UNHCR’s order.
Othman, who is from West Darfur, spent two months in jail before a member of the UNHCR’s protection staff came and organized his and one of the other detainees’ release on the grounds that they had refugee status.
Two remain locked up. One of whom, according to Othman, requires immediate medical attention due to complications stemming from a gunshot he sustained during a tribal dispute in Sudan.
He has received little help in prison and despite the fact that he has had refugee status for a year, the UNHCR has not secured his release or assistance, Othman says.
The arrest of these four refugees is the latest in a series of incidents that has fostered a toxic relationship between the UNHCR and Sudanese refugees in Lebanon.
Sudanese refugees in Lebanon feel that UNHCR staff are hostile toward them and their cases are not prioritized – sometimes completely ignored – due to a racial bias against them. But the U.N. agency maintains that it is doing all that it can to help Sudanese refugees.
The most notable story of the plight of Sudanese refugees in Lebanon is a two-month hunger strike which took place in front of the UNHCR offices in the summer of 2012 over motivations similar to those of Othman and his colleagues.
The two-month hunger strike escalated until the protesters blocked the entrance of the UNHCR’s office and 13 refugees were eventually arrested, also on the agency’s request.
This incident led to the creation of a group called Anjo, Save the Sudanese Refugees of Lebanon, which dedicated itself to protecting the Sudanese community in Lebanon, and they are active to this day. They meet weekly at a Sudanese restaurant in Jnah to discuss the plight of Sudanese refugees in Lebanon and how they can address other problems within the community.
According to their website, the UNHCR has 270 Sudanese refugees registered. Anjo estimates that there are about 900-1,000 Sudanese refugees in Lebanon that have either applied for refugee status, been declined or are registered.
The “[UNHCR] has a racial attitude toward [the Sudanese refugees], they are completely dismissive of the Sudanese, they don’t trust them and they don’t believe in them,” said Dr. Elmoiz Abu Noura, a former professor at the University of North Carolina and coordinator at Anjo.
The Sudanese community as a whole is faced with intense discrimination within Lebanese society. Many constantly live under the threat of being arrested as they traveled to Lebanon illegally to flee conflicts in Darfur, Kurdurfan or the Nuba Mountains.
They’re also faced with intense discrimination in Lebanon because of the color of their skin.
UNHCR spokesperson Dana Sleiman told The Daily Star that their staff does sympathize with the plight of the Sudanese.
“[Feelings of resentment] might be attached to the fact that we are not able to always provide positive answers,” she said. “We’re not delivering positive news every day. We know ... it’s extremely difficult for Sudanese refugees.”
She added that it is not UNHCR’s policy to contact the authorities to deal with protesters, citing 2012 as an exception. However, she did not elaborate on the case of Othman last year.
With the help of Anjo, all but one of the 13 refugees arrested in 2012 were able to secure resettlement and leave Lebanon. Mohammad, who also declined to give his real name, is the last of that group and he is still awaiting resettlement.
But 2012 was not the first time, nor the last, that Mohammad was arrested at the request of UNHCR.
He told The Daily Star that he has been arrested nine times – often ending up in Roumieh Prison – while visiting the office. “I don’t know why they do this to me!” said a flustered Mohammad, who suffers from a stutter. “Maybe it’s because of the way that I talk or because Arabic isn’t my first language, but every time I go there to see what is happening with my file, they call General Security and have me arrested.”
Mohammad, who also hails from Darfur, came to Lebanon in 2010 after four years in one of Sudan’s worst prisons. He fled to Libya first, and then to Syria before ending up in Lebanon. “I didn’t know anything about Lebanon before I got here. I didn’t know that they treat black people like dogs,” he said bitterly.
Najwa Damer, another Sudanese refugee from the Nuba Mountains region who has lived in Lebanon for 16 years, has also felt the extent of racism in Lebanon. Her children were denied entry to a school because they are black. Her issue caused a stir and she appeared on Al-Hurra TV station to speak on her situation in February.
In an unrelated incident, she was arrested a few weeks later for having out-of-date papers.
Damer was not yet a registered refugee when she was arrested but she had submitted an application for refugee status in 2013 after giving up on returning to Sudan.
On March 2, 2015, a representative from UNHCR came to the prison and told her that she had been granted refugee status. However, according to Damer, her papers said she had been granted refugee status in July 2014 but nobody had notified her.
Had she been notified earlier, she may never have been arrested. Thanks to her newfound status, Damer was released Thursday. “I went to UNHCR many times over the past year and they would always check and say my file was not ready yet,” she told The Daily Star. “They didn’t tell me why it was delayed.”
The reasons for her eight-month delay are unclear and Sleiman said the UNHCR cannot comment on specific files due to privacy reasons.
Damer is grateful to be out of prison and reunited with her family but most Sudanese refugees still harbor distrust toward the U.N.’s refugee agency.
“The Sudanese would be better off if we couldn’t get refugee status at all,” Othman lamented. “If just gives us false hope.”