BEIRUT: On Tuesday, Jan. 28 Internal Security Forces closed down a three-month-long sit-in by Sudanese and Ethiopian protesters opposite the offices of the U.N. Refugee Agency in Beirut. Thirty ISF soldiers dismantled shelters and confiscated belongings into a waste disposal truck, depriving protesters of their basic shelter on a night of heavy rain. The ISF returned the following day and arrested one Sudanese protester.
This action follows periodic demonstrations by the sit-in since last October, in which approximately 30 men, women and children had been residing in cramped, substandard shelters, exposed to harsh winter conditions.
The last demonstration occurred Jan. 14. Protesters gathered in front of their shelters and held banners, chanting for hours, asking, “Where are refugee rights?” and “Take our files out of the drawer,” while police and private security looked on and UNHCR staff passed by collecting lunch deliveries.
The group’s sit-in protest was a response to what they see as discrimination toward their asylum cases. Their major grievances against the UNHCR are lengthy application procedures that place them in prolonged legal limbo, lack of protection against detention and deportation, inability to access basic assistance from the UNHCR, and “closed files.” Because Lebanon is not party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, those seeking refugee status in Lebanon must approach the international system through the UNHCR in order to possibly be resettled in a third country. The UNHCR therefore is the focal point of these protesters’ grievances.
Responding to these grievances on the day of the demonstration, UNHCR spokesperson Lisa Abou Khaled asserted, “We empathize with the protesters,” and acknowledged their difficulty in obtaining Lebanese legal residency, something that the UNHCR cannot provide. Speaking in the same interview, the head of UNHCR’s Mount Lebanon field office, Laura Almirall, noted that UNHCR assistance is tied to an individual’s status. “It is important that we know who we are talking about here. Refugees and asylum-seekers are eligible for some assistance from the UNHCR, but those with closed files are deemed migrants and are not part of our mandate,” Almirall explained.
The protesters reject this distinction. While some came to Lebanon under the kafala system - a sponsorship system for migrant labor that has come under criticism - they still claim that conditions in their home countries are legitimate grounds for refugee status.
This sit-in was the latest expression of years of discontent among Sudanese and Ethiopian nationals seeking refugee status in Lebanon. Blocked from employment by Lebanese laws governing migrants and refugees, the protesters’ dire circumstances are compounded by their inability to obtain material assistance from the UNHCR.
Speaking at the demonstration, one Ethiopian protester, who preferred to remain anonymous, despaired “I have a child, I am five months pregnant, my husband is in jail, I have no money, no home, I cannot buy food.” She went on to accuse the UNHCR of discrimination. While empathizing with such cases, UNHCR’s Abou Khaled denied discriminatory practices insisting that, “access to assistance is based on vulnerability, irrespective of nationality and according to standard criteria.”
But for Simina, 79, from Ethiopia, these explanations fall short. Despite suffering severe heart trouble, Simina says the UNHCR will not help her because her asylum request is still pending, despite being filed seven years ago.
“I cannot buy medicine,” she explains, “and when I tell the UNHCR, they say that my number is there, and they will call me.” For Simina, she believes the UNHCR’s unwillingness to recognize her as a refugee seems neglectful at best and discriminatory at worst. “I came here for political reasons,” she explained, “my church was burned down.”
Another unnamed Ethiopian woman interviewed at the Jan. 14 demonstration said she had suffered maltreatment while working as a maid in Lebanon and had run away from her employers. But even so, she insisted that she had left Ethiopia for political reasons and would rather die than return there.
After all, conditions in Ethiopia are volatile, characterized by rising ethnic tensions and a spate of church burnings against Christian communities. The number of newly displaced people in Ethiopia in the first half of 2018 exceeded the equivalent in Syria, according to an Sept. 10, 2019 article in the New African, a London-based publication. By year’s end the U.N. estimated the number of internally displaced people in Ethiopia had exceeded 2 million.
Conditions in Sudan are equally fraught. Recurring conflicts between Khartoum and rebel groups continue to destabilize regions such as West Darfur, while difficult relations with South Sudan render border regions volatile.
The double layer of insecurity faced by these demonstrators, first in their countries of origin, then in Lebanon, illustrates how the legal distinction between migrant and refugee, though delineated on paper, may not be useful in addressing the needs of vulnerable people the international system was designed to help.
Mohamed Adam, 53, from Darfur, Sudan, arrived in Lebanon in 2010 and applied for refugee status. Eleven years later, he is still waiting: “It doesn’t make sense for it to take this long,” complained Adam a few days after the demonstration. “We are disgusted by this unreasonably long wait but there is no way I am giving up.”
Responding to the issue of lengthy wait times, Almirall at the UNHCR noted that, “Cases are extremely complex and require multiple interviews.” Abou Khaled explained that long waits are actually caused by the search for third country resettlement and not for refugee status itself.
Still others have had their applications outright rejected. Mubarak, 45, from Darfur, who has since been arrested following the sit-in’s closure, spoke to The Daily Star. “My file was closed in 2007,” he explained during the Jan. 14 demonstration. While the UNHCR’s Abou Khaled stated that individuals always have the opportunity to reopen files, Mubarak says he was told not to come back, that his file would not be reopened.
In 2016 he was detained by Lebanese authorities. Having refugee status with the UNHCR would not have afforded Mubarak legal residency in Lebanon, but it could have been critical in protecting him from deportation. As it happened, Mubarak’s last-ditch appeal to the UNHCR failed and he was deported.
Mubarak spent nine months in prison awaiting what he said was “a death sentence” and alleges that he was regularly subjected to torture. A failed suicide attempt landed him in the hospital from where he escaped, eventually returning to Lebanon in 2018 to reunite with his family. Despite medical examinations testifying to torture abuse, Mubarak is still unsure whether his file will be reopened. “Since returning,” he explained later at the sit-in, “I tried four times [to reopen my file] and each time they said they have no record of me.”
Another protester at the demonstration, Hameed, recounted a similar story. He fled from the disputed Abyei region in Sudan in 1998 but failed to gain refugee status in Lebanon. He was later detained for three months, unable to see his wife or children, before being deported and handed over to the Sudanese authorities in Khartoum. He was sent to prison and says he was subjected to torture.
He managed to escape by paying a bribe, and returned to Lebanon, yet his file remains closed. “I am a wanted man in Sudan,” he explained to The Daily Star at the Jan. 14 demonstration. Because of their closed files, Hameed and Mubarak remain outside the UNHCR’s protection mandate.
These stories reflect the protesters’ anger regarding protection against detention and deportation and raise questions as to why these files were closed in the first place. “There is no protection for African refugees in Lebanese detention,” explained protest organizer Abdul Baker at the Jan. 14 demonstration. “The big question we are asking today is why won’t the UNHCR provide this protection? It is part of their mandate.”
Yet the UNHCR does intervene to prevent deportation. An operational report from last year states that 71 non-Syrian asylum-seekers were given assistance in detention to expedite their refugee status or resettlement options. The Daily Star could not confirm the nationalities of those assisted, and in a December statement the UNHCR denied discrimination against Africans and said that “options for those who fall outside of UNHCR’s international refugee protection mandate are few.”
Anger toward the UNHCR has risen following a similar demonstration last month at which roughly half a dozen protesters were arrested. While the sit-in blamed the arrests on the UNHCR, Abou Khaled denied this. Either way, the status of the detainees is a concern for the protesters and the UNHCR - who assured The Daily Star that they have made inquiries with the ISF but were unwilling to comment on whether any deportations had occurred. Although the detainees’ asylum statuses could not be verified, anti-racism movement activists in Lebanon who supported the sit-in believe a number have not obtained refugee status, putting them in grave danger of deportation.
Now, with the sit-in closed down by the ISF, the protesters’ high-risk strategy seems to have run aground. Yet, they insist that they will continue their sit-in regardless. “We are scared that the ISF may come and arrest us any day,” Mubarak said. Two weeks later and under arrest, Mubarak’s fears were evidently warranted.