BEIRUT: Over a dozen refugees ended up in jail after the U.N. refugee organization in Beirut asked police to break up a protest blocking their building’s main entrance over a week ago.
Families of the detained gathered outside the organization’s headquarters Monday to lobby for their release.The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) made no mention of the arrests in their statement after the end of the sit-in. The Daily Star learned of the detentions after being contacted by a refugee.
Sudanese refugees staged a monthlong hunger strike in front of the UNHCR office throughout July demanding the acceleration of their resettlement and status issues.
The refugees escalated their protest at the end of July, blocking the main entrance of the agency’s building, causing UNHCR officials to call the Internal Security Forces to end the protest.
Early in the morning on a Saturday at the beginning of August, Sudanese refugees said demonstrators were told by police to give up their protest around the building or go to jail. Some 13 refugees, including a 16-year-old, refused to give up their cause and were imprisoned. The refugees have been held in General Security detention cells for 10 days.
“You should protect us, not send me to jail,” said a refugee and protester who gave his name as Brown, refusing to be identified by his real name. “We need help to figure out our problems.”
Speaking after a small protest by the families of the men detained, Brown said he has lost faith in UNHCR and how it handles the Sudanese population.
“Look outside – they have kids, they need protection, and they need help,” Brown said.
The refugees’ cardboard camp has since been cleared away from outside the office and heavy cement flower pots have been put in their place to prevent new sit-ins.
The detentions do not align with the statement UNHCR published after clearing the refugees from their premises. The ISF “took measures Saturday Aug. 4 to persuade protesters blocking UNHCR’s main entrance to peacefully leave the premises,” the statement said.
UNHCR public relations officials now admit the arrests took place, but say they were an unintended consequence of the need to break up the disruptive protest.
“UNHCR has asked for the release of the men,” UNHCR spokeswoman Ariane Rummery said.
Rummery said the organization has been in touch with the judge and General Security officials handling the refugees’ cases to lobby for their release. Rummery said visits to the detainees have also begun.
“We think it’s regrettable that they are in jail,” Rummery said.
But she also said the organization saw the protest as a dangerous activity that was hurting UNHCR’s ability to help a rapidly growing refugee population in Lebanon.
UNHCR says the majority of the people involved in the sit-in are recognized refugees whose paperwork has been submitted for resettlement to a new country, and they cannot expedite that process. They say refugees with other problems have been counseled on their best courses of action.
But many Sudanese refugees don’t see it the same way. A sense of distrust and hurt has stung members of the community who feel unfairly treated by both the refugee agency and many people in Lebanon.
Families gathered outside the UNHCR office to ask for help releasing their detained relatives listed numerous injustices they say their family members experience every day.
They say the larger refugee populations from neighboring countries like Iraq and Syria get special treatment, while they continue to languish in what they describe as an often-racist country, seemingly with no end in sight.
“We don’t have a future,” said 24-year-old Khalass Jomaa, who has lived as a refugee for the last 15 years with her three children.
“We want help,” she said.