Lebanon’s forgotten refugees

Sudanese refugees are on hunger strike, calling to be resettled elsewhere after facing what they call discrimination.

Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees [Credit: Anti-Racism Movement]

On a dusty pavement in southern Beirut a collection of makeshift tents have been erected, made up of concrete blocks, wooden sticks and cardboard boxes. Inside, 16 Sudanese refugees can be found, hunched quietly on the blanket-strewn floor, several bottles of water their only companion, as they shield themselves from the sun beating down on them.

They have been on hunger strike outside the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) since June 11. Their demands include the immediate relocation to a resettlement country, the opening of closed files and quickening the process of gaining refugee status.

“This is not life,” Ibrahim Mahdi, a 31-year-old Sudanese on his 51st day of hunger strike, told Al Jazeera. “We don’t have any rights here. All we want is to be resettled elsewhere and no one is letting us go.”

Ibrahim fled fighting in Darfur eight years ago and has been living without papers in Lebanon ever since. For the last eight years, he has been waiting for the UNHCR to tackle his case and resettle him in a third country.

His case is not unique. In fact, it is typical of almost every Sudanese refugee currently living in Lebanon. It is not unusual to hear of Sudanese refugees who have been residing in limbo in Lebanon for the last 15 years waiting to be given refugee status.

‘Because we are black’

Lebanon is no stranger to refugees; official records put the number of Palestinian refugees in camps strewn across the country at over 400,000, in addition to approximately 8,000 Iraqi refugees and more recently, around 28,000 Syrian refugees.

According to the UNHCR, there are currently over 500 Sudanese refugees and asylum seekers in Lebanon. While their numbers may be small in comparison, they are forced to deal with an unprecedented level of discrimination due to their race.

“The Lebanese government is also to blame… they have not assumed their responsibility towards the refugees in the country

– Nay El Rahi, Anti-racism Movement

“Lebanon is an awful place to be a Sudanese refugee,” explained Adam, a 27-year-old, also from Darfur, who arrived in the country after being smuggled across the Syrian border a year ago. He joined the hunger strike just over a week ago, following his release from prison where he was held for two months for being an illegal immigrant. “Because we are black, we face racism everywhere here, and the authorities treat us even worse.”

“Our children get harassed in school, or can’t even go to school,” he said. “They get called names like ‘charcoal’.”

“I haven’t been living. I can’t even describe what it is like,” said Ibrahim. “You spend your entire time moving from place to place, looking for somewhere to live, while trying to avoid the authorities and prosecution.”

“We were victims in our country, so we left there only to come here, where it is even worse,” said Adam. “There is no difference between life outside the UNHCR office, and the life we had in Sudan.”

Lebanon is not a signatory of the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, nor has it signed its 1967 Protocol. There are not provisions in its domestic laws to protect refugees, allowing the authorities to detain and deport anyone who is not in possession of papers authorising them to stay in Lebanon.

Members of the Sudanese community are regularly detained and deported for not having the necessary paperwork, unless a registered organisation comes to their rescue by proving their paperwork is being processed. This may buy them between three and six months before they are re-arrested again.

“The majority of us don’t have papers, and if we get sent back to Sudan we will face death,” said Ibrahim.

The decision to camp so openly outside the UNHCR headquarters is risky, as it has left the refugees vulnerable to arrest by Lebanese authorities.

“This has happened a couple of times,” said Ibrahim, describing how, when they first started their protest, the police would drive by and arbitrarily detain some of them on the charge they did not have the necessary papers to be in the country. “This is what we’re protesting for!”

Blaming the system

The UNHCR told Al Jazeera it is doing as much as it possibly can to facilitate the refugees, but bureaucratic procedures for resettlement are slowing down the process.

 Damascus refugees flee to Lebanon 

“The process is lengthy, including determining refugee status, and we understand that,” explained Dana Sleiman, spokesperson for the UNHCR. “For the Sudanese community in Lebanon it can be especially difficult to live because they are discriminated against, they are bullied, and the protection environment around them doesn’t really help, especially with the fact the government has not signed the refugee protocol, so we submit their files as urgent cases.”

Yet once their files have been submitted to the resettlement countries, they are forced to wait while further checks are carried out. According to Sleiman, it takes on average two or three years for a case to be finalised, depending on the resettlement country. With the Sudanese refugees, the resettlement country tends to be the United States, as they have the largest quota per year for accepting refugees. Recently, the US has introduced new security checks, further lengthening the resettlement process.

“As UNHCR, there is not much we can do to avoid this waiting process. We know it is not easy for [the Sudanese refugees].”

‘No humanity here’

Nay El Rahi, a member of the Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), a collective of local activists, told Al Jazeera the problem for the Sudanese community is double-edged. “It is the bureaucracy, but it is also the discrimination they have to face.”

“We don’t care how ‘hard’ people are working; this is an issue which needs to be resolved properly. There is no use in blaming the system,” and continuing to use it as is, she said, referring to the current UNCHR mechanisms.

“The Lebanese government is also to blame, as they have not assumed their responsibility towards the refugees in the country.”

ARM has been visiting the refugees on an almost daily basis and holding awareness meetings to inform the public, with the hope that by shedding light on the plight of the refugees, they can force a change in the current mindset in the country.

This is not about going home, this is about humanity

– Adam, Sudanese refugee

“Being a refugee is incredibly difficult, but being a Sudanese refugee in Lebanon is one of the hardest things ever.”

Race in Lebanon is still a huge issue. “Lebanon was definitely worse two years ago,” said El Rahi, adding that more people are aware of the prevalence of racism and classism in society. “It is still a racist system, yes, but awareness is growing bit by bit.”

For Adam, who continues to sit on the dusty pavement as people walk past ignoring the camp, the protest is more than just refugee rights, it is a fight for humanity. “This is not about going home, this is about humanity. People do not look at us like we’re human beings. There is no humanity here.” 

Follow Nour Samaha on Twitter: @Nour_Samaha

Source: Al Jazeera