BEIRUT: The Sudanese refugees camped outside Beirut’s U.N. refugee agency are having an unusually challenging Ramadan.
On hunger strike for 50 days, the men have also abstained from liquids during the day since the start of the holy month. Their iftar consists mostly of juice. “It is difficult,” Mohammad Abdul-Latif said of the overlap between Ramadan and the hunger strike, crediting God for recent cloudy weather that has provided some holiday respite from the sun.
The 20 or so men have been refusing food and sleeping at the gates of UNHCR in protest of what they say is a lengthy process for determining refugee status, slow resettlement for those who are granted this classification, and the poor quality of assistance they receive while in Lebanon.
Last week, they moved closer to the building’s entrance. Previously sleeping across the street, they are now also blocking one of two entrances to the building with cardboard, blankets, a wire bed frame, and their bodies. Two young men were practicing their English in front of the black door Monday.
UNHCR issued a statement about the closure last week, calling the move an “escalation” that prohibits “staff from entering or exiting the building as needed” and constitutes a “serious safety concern.”
UNHCR spokesperson Dana Sleiman said that the building had two entrances, one for refugees and asylum seekers and the other for staff, media, and other visitors. The refugees are blocking the staff entrance. She said the agency was trying its best to “keep the channels of communication open” with the protesters, “but this [the closure] cannot continue, it is a matter of security and protection for the refugees who approach the office, for asylum seekers and employees.”
The strikers said that two UNHCR staffers came to speak to them after they blocked the entrance, asking about their demands and telling them that the closure was unacceptable.
The protesters were insulted by the question, taking it to mean that UNHCR had ignored their previous complaints. “We have given them thousands of papers stipulating our demands and after 50 days they asked what our demands are,” Abdul-Latif said. “This is clowning around.”
Another protester, Adam Adeem, said that the men were not concerned about possible arrest, as many have spent time in jail given that their refugee identification is not always considered acceptable to authorities.
UNHCR said it had counseled the strikers both on an individual and group basis, and The Daily Star has seen minutes of a meeting between the men, an NGO that supports them, and a UNHCR representative.
But the strikers have called the meetings unsatisfactory, saying the agency used them only to explain their general processes. Abdul-Latif, noticeably more agitated and thinner than several weeks ago, said he no longer even believes UNHCR has possession of his case file.
Sleiman, however, said the refugee agency had prepared letters detailing each striker’s situation, including personal details on their statuses.
She said the strikers refused to accept the letters.
After 50 days, the hunger strike seems to be at an impasse. UNHCR has said it is sympathetic to the strikers’ concerns, but cannot influence the time it takes for countries to accept refugees. After backing off a vow to completely refuse liquids, the protesters still believe the agency could exact more leverage on the countries where they are to eventually move.
Even with UNHCR urging the refugees to return home, the men appeared to be in it for the long haul Monday. For the hot days, there were children’s toys, books and playing cards scattered around their modest encampment. There were also cans of bug spray for the humid nights.
When the strike began, many of the men – who hail from both Sudan and the newly independent South Sudan – complained of discrimination in Lebanon and the difficulty of finding decent work.
After weeks of unemployment and no income, the men, who are starving by choice, said Monday that their families were now going hungry as well.
Dawood Dafallah said he had failed in his attempts to secure help from an NGO for his wife and 7-month-old daughter. With their daughter Aisha on her lap, his wife Embet said she feared becoming homeless this Ramadan.
She and the other wives work when they can, but Embet said she doesn’t have enough money for food.
Soon, she won’t be able to pay the rent on her apartment. Embet pointed at the sidewalk where the protesters were sleeping. When that happens, “we’ll move here,” she said. – With additional reporting by Wassim Mroueh