North Africa, West Asia

“Where are my rights?” African refugees vs. UNHCR in Lebanon

A new episode unfolds in the long history of tensions between African refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers and UNHCR.

Yazan al-Saadi
22 January 2020
African asylum seekers and refugees protest in front of UNHCR, January 14th, 2020.
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Pictures by Zeina Ammar.

“Where are my rights?” more than thirty protesters, mainly women and children, including a handful of men and elderly, all notably from Sudan or Ethiopia, chanted across the road from the United Nations refugee agency's (UNHCR) offices in the Jnah neighborhood of Lebanese capital, Beirut, during a rare, sunny morning on January 14, 2020.

The protesters - backed by a few activists and supporters from various backgrounds, including members of the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM) - called on the UNHCR to reopen their case files previously closed, a more faster and more robust resettlement status for case files that have been pending for years, provide services of protection by UNCHR, and a general respect and dignity towards refugees and asylum seekers from African countries.

A group of security forces, an assemblage of private security, diplomatic police, and the Lebanese internal forces, watched silently and curiously from behind the blue metal gates.

This most recent act is part of an ongoing four months old protest that includes occupying a sliver of land in front of the gates where families sleep in tents, braving the volatile and wet Lebanese winter.

“[These protests] in fact have been happening more or less for years,” said Abdul Baqi, a 30 year old Sudanese activist, who was forced to leave Sudan two years ago, and one of the organizers behind the protest.

An inherent distrust exists among Sudanese, Ethiopian and other African-origin communities towards UNHCR

“There is a lack of protection by UNHCR, they barely provide basic services, and their processes are very long, taking up to decades,” he added, “There are abuses that have happened, a general sense of neglect and disrespect for us as human beings, with no training of their staff, on top of them saying that they have no funds.”

An inherent distrust exists among Sudanese, Ethiopian and other African-origin communities towards UNHCR. This distrust is not limited to Lebanon, but has manifested elsewhere, most notably in Egypt, after attacks by security forces in 2005 to disperse protest camps established by Sudanese and other African-origin refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants in front of UNHCR offices, resulting in tens of deaths, hundreds of injuries, and thousands arrested.

In Lebanon, tension between African refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers (or whatever designations are dictated by the present's parameters of international law) with UNHCR has a long history. Officially, there are around 2,000 registered and recognized refugees from Sudan, Ethiopia, and other African countries in Lebanon, who are in theory supposed to receive services, protection, and a process for resettlement elsewhere by UNHCR, and there are many others in vulnerable conditions, yet to be surveyed, unrecognized in status or have had their files closed by UNHCR for a variety of reasons.

Life in Lebanon in general is extremely difficult, as the eruption of the October 17 uprising attests. Further compounding the difficulties caused by Lebanon's own respective societal, political and economical struggled, African nationals acutely face daily, micro-forms of discrimination and racism, immense vulnerability to abuses from security apparatuses, and exist in a limbo-like condition – unable to return to their home countries or go elsewhere.

“I have no country to go back to, and I have no future. My family is my life. I am so upset with UNHCR, they don't come to see us. They are blind"

“I've been in Lebanon for 20 years. I am Ethiopian and Christian, my husband is Sudanese and Muslim. He is sick. We have no support from UNHCR. Nothing. I work and barely get paid, I throw garbage for two buildings. Life is tough, very tough,” said one participant at the protest, voice shaking as she spoke. “I have no country to go back to, and I have no future. My family is my life. I am so upset with UNHCR, they don't come to see us. They are blind.”

“Life here is suffering,” said Tariq, a 44-year old Sudanese protester and a volunteer to sleep in the tents during the past four months. He had escaped violence in Sudan, going first to Syria, and then arrived to Lebanon in 2000 and for over two decades he's been waiting for a solution to his situation.

“I came to Lebanon and I registered with UNHCR. A year later they closed my file with no reason given. Year after year, I appealed. I even got married and had a son in 2015 and another one later. I pay for their education myself with whatever work I can get. UNHCR then re-opened my file in 2016, I had one interview in 2017, and then I was informed in the beginning of 2019 that my file was closed with no reason, alternatives or solutions given.”

African asylum seekers and refugees protest in front of UNHCR, January 14th, 2020 | Pictures by Zeina Ammar

Another protester named Ismail, a 38 year old Sudanese, who arrived to Lebanon in 2000. He's married with four children, and also faced a similar situation as Tariq. “My file was closed in 2000, it opened in 2007, closed in 2019. I was told that I needed “to give more information.” I couldn't believe it. What more information did they need? I gave them everything and I wasn't told I needed to give more. I have no trust in them. I don't want money. I want a future for my children,” he said.

“We empathize with the situation of Ethiopian and Sudanese in Lebanon,” said Lisa Abou Khaled, UNHCR's Public Information Officer during an interview with OpenDemocracy. “The current situation in Lebanon is affecting everyone in the country, and the most vulnerable groups, including refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants, are very severely impacted. Sudanese and Ethiopian refugees and migrants in Lebanon are facing many challenges, and we continuously discuss their situation with each one of them individually.”

“But not all cases are straight forward,” said Laura Almirall, UNHCR's Head of Field Office in Beirut. “We consider everyone, but it doesn't mean that everyone can or will get the services, from cash assistance, health care, to access to education. We're working with limited funding and resources.”

With seemingly little to no options, civil disobedience, therefore, for the many present becomes a refuge

UNHCR works within a very rigid mandate regarding refugees. Cases are determined according to a criteria in accordance with international law – however, the criteria has become exceedingly strained since its post-second world war beginnings. Both Almirall and Abou Khaled describe the process in terms of recognition of status, assessment, and service provision, going further to describe that UNHCR goes the extra length to providing individual counselling and advice on other services with persons who do not qualify as refugees.

With seemingly little to no options, civil disobedience, therefore, for the many present becomes a refuge. Multiple protests, sit-ins, camp-ins, and other forms of civil disobedience actions in front of the UNHCR's offices by Sudanese, Ethiopians, and other African-origin nationals have periodically erupted over the past decade, resulting in arrests, deportations, intimidation, and other forms of documented abuses by security forces, and allegedly by UNHCR staff too.

This most recent episode in Lebanon began four months ago, and culminated in a confrontation on December 3, 2019. There is a disagreement between UNHCR, on one hand, and the protesters including ARM, on the other, about what happened on December 3.

What is commonly agreed upon is this: After two months camping and protesting across the street, a decision was taken by the Sudanese and Ethiopian protesters to peacefully escalate by blocking the entrance to the UNHCR building. Security forces were called into the scene, and used excessive force to remove the protesters, including arresting a number of them.

African asylum seekers and refugees protest in front of UNHCR, January 14th, 2020 | Picture by Zeina Ammar

For their part, the Sudanese and Ethiopians protesters, as well as ARM, assert that the UNHCR staff had been threatening protesters, and after the protesters had decided to escalate peacefully their civil disobedience action, UNHCR staff called the security forces, which resulted in many arrests, with seven people (six Sudanese, one Ethiopian) still held in detention. All these allegations published by ARM, in tandem with an open letter to UN High Commissioner for Refugees Mr. Filippo Grandi and UNHCR Representative in Lebanon Ms. Mireille Girard, on December 22.

Both ARM and the protesters are calling for the immediate release of those detained, a transparent accountability by UNHCR on its staff's actions, and rectifying “its history of negligence.”

For its part, UNHCR responded with a statement on its Facebook page on December 27, referring to the allegations as “misleading and inaccurate reports circulating on social media.”

The brief statement continued:

“Since October, a group of Sudanese and Ethiopian nationals started protesting outside UNHCR’s office demanding more assistance in Lebanon and third country resettlement. UNHCR has been actively engaging with the protestors and has respected their right to peaceful demonstration, while reminding them of the obligation to respect national laws and regulations. UNHCR staff have at no time used verbal or physical abuse against the protestors, nor triggered their arrest.

UNHCR staff have provided the protestors with counselling and advice about the assistance and solutions available, based on the standard criteria applicable to all refugees and asylum-seekers in Lebanon, and the individual circumstances and vulnerabilities of the protestors. Eligibility for assistance is solely determined based on the economic vulnerability criteria that apply to all refugees and asylum-seekers in Lebanon, regardless of nationality.

African asylum seekers and refugees protest in front of UNHCR, January 14th, 2020 | Pictures by Zeina Ammar

A video filmed on 5 December [sic] shows the guards and police officers regularly stationed outside UNHCR’s office moving the belongings of protestors after they had blocked the main entrance to the building. UNHCR is closely following up with the authorities on the situation of the protestors who remain in detention after being arrested by the police and is continuously advising refugees and asylum-seekers in Lebanon to seek legal residency to avoid putting themselves at risk of arrest and potential deportation.

Many Sudanese, Ethiopians and refugees and migrants of other nationalities in Lebanon face multiple difficulties in their daily lives, and we recognize that third country resettlement quotas are limited, and that the options for those who fall outside of UNHCR’s international refugee protection mandate are few.

UNHCR regularly engages and encourages organizations working with migrants to provide support and factual advice on the options available to them.

“In terms of abuses, we have a stringent zero tolerance policy on any behaviour by our staff on vulnerable communities, and we have a compliant mechanism, as well as other forms of accountability,” Abou Khaled asserted, adding that it was not UNHCR staff that made the call, but the diplomatic police at the gates, who were “calling for back-up.”

Interestingly, Abou Khaled noted that it was only four (rather than seven) that were arrested, and UNHCR has been following up with them, but both Abou Khaled and Almirall could not further comment on the incident or any particular cases or testimonies by the protesters, stating that UNHCR has a policy of not commenting on individual cases for confidentiality and security reasons. They also denied the existence of a “Madam Houry” who protesters have highlighted as an abusive UNHCR staff member.

“We acknowledge that UNHCR's work is not sufficient, it is very limited given our limited resources. We are trying our best, there will be room to do more if we have more resources,” Abou Khaled concluded.

"UNHCR must open a transparent investigation into incidents of verbal and physical violence and hold its staff accountable”

UNHCR's response has left the protesters and members of ARM dissatisfied.

"UNHCR uses the technicalities of Refugee Status Determination and Resettlement processes to discredit the demands of the protestors. In reality, UNHCR has a big role to play in shaping that system through advocacy with the Lebanese government and resettlement countries. Even within the existing system itself, they can and should do a better job at counseling people on their cases through communicating in their native language in an accessible way and ensuring greater transparency in their decision-making processes, including their eligibility criteria,” said Zeina Ammar, ARM's Advocacy and Communications Manager.

"UNHCR must open a transparent investigation into incidents of verbal and physical violence and hold its staff accountable. If they don't know what happens behind closed doors or on the street, let them sit with the protestors and hear it directly from them."

“We need a solution. They don't answer their phones when we call. There's not anyone in their offices to talk to. I have no support and my daughter is five months old. I don't know why they are not held?” asked Mona, 25 years-old from Ethiopian woman, her Sudanese husband has been in detention for over six months.

“O' Rights, where are you? Where are you?” chanted a protester, echoed by the rest.

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