BEIRUT: The Sudanese refugees who have been on hunger strike outside a U.N. office for nearly a month say they will stop drinking liquids Monday if their demands are not met. Some 21 men began refusing food June 11, saying previous protests had failed to net results.
Their demands to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – they are sleeping outside its Jnah building – include a faster process for determining refugee or asylum status, legal assistance for those who are arrested for illegal entry or stay in the country, and quicker response from states where registered refugees are assigned for resettlement.
One of the strikers, Mohammad Abdul-Latif, said Thursday that “starting Monday we will stop drinking.” Several other men confirmed this intention. Ibrahim Ishaac said that he and the others “were ready to be a sacrifice for this cause ... we are serious and ready to die for this.”
Currently, the group is drinking water and juice.
Abdul-Latif said he was exhausted, had lost weight, and was having trouble moving. These problems are common, according to a doctor who has been volunteering to look after the mens’ health. The doctor, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the strikers are in a catabolic state, which means their bodies are breaking themselves down.
Most strikers have a burning sensation in their stomach, he said, and several men with pre-existing health conditions are at especially high risk. Several have been hospitalized for dehydration and rehydrated intravenously, and it was the doctor’s opinion that IV rehydration will be needed more frequently from now on.
He said that if they stop drinking fluids, hospitalization will likely be required within 24 to 48 hours.
Speaking to The Daily Star before the strikers announced their intention to stop drinking, UNHCR spokesperson Dana Sleiman said that the organization has had “many contacts” with the men and the office was “going to take care of their cases under the restrictions we are under.”
One of the major complaints of the strikers, many of whom are registered refugees, is the long wait for resettlement to a third country. They cannot stay in Lebanon permanently because the country has not ratified the 1950 Refugee Convention.
Sleiman said that once a refugee’s file is submitted to a third country, which is often the U.S. because it has a large quota for receiving refugees, “it is in the hands of the resettlement country and no longer with us.” This is one of the restrictions UNHCR is under, she said, acknowledging that waiting is lengthy and difficult process. She added that all Sudanese cases are submitted for resettlement on an “urgent basis. Because we know what they are subjected to in Lebanon and how vulnerable they can be.”
But the strikers, some of whom have been waiting to move for a decade, said the meetings with UNHCR have not been successful. Isaac said he did believe UNHCR was serious about dealing with their complaints, and did not believe that resettlement was truly out of the organization’s hands. “They can negotiate,” he said.
He stressed that life in Lebanon is difficult for Sudanese “because of racism. We are not living good lives, [either] at home or on the doorstep of UNHCR.”
After learning of the strikers’ decision to escalate by declining liquids, the UNHCR declined to comment until it had further details.
There are only a few hundred registered Sudanese refugees in Lebanon, but this count does not include asylum seekers and others who have either been denied refugee or asylum status or are simply not on the U.N.’s radar.
UNHCR and the doctor attending to the strikers said that registered refugees receive most health care free of cost, but the process is different for those who are not registered refugees.
Milad Suleiman has been seeking asylum for nine years: After having his blood pressure checked by the doctor, he said he will stop drinking and taking his hypertension medication Monday.
He said he did not fear the consequences of this move. “We fled death from bullets and rockets in our country,” he said. “Here they kill us slowly, and enjoy it,” said Suleiman, who complained that getting medication from the U.N.’s partner organizations was a difficult and lengthy process. “It is better to finish the process quickly.”
Until now, the families of the Sudanese men have been joining them during the day. Abdul-Latif said that starting Monday, their wives and children plan to spend nights outside the UNHCR. – with additional reporting by Wassim Mroueh