In the morning of Monday, June 11, twenty-one Sudanese refugees decided to start an open-ended hunger strike. As Lebanon is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, refugees in Lebanon are automatically considered illegal and face dreadful living conditions. Sitting in front of the UNHCR offices in Jnah, Beirut, the protesters have been joined by their families and friends. Four Iraqis and Syrian refugees have also joined them in this protest. Overall, 47 refugees are striking. All of them share similar stories: they received a confirmation that their refugee status is being processed, but then heard nothing for years. The strikers claim they will stay in front of the UNHCR until their demands are met. Today is their 47th day of hunger strike and they are still ignored by the UNHCR. Mashallah News talked with five of them.
Haroun Abdel Aziz Mohamad Sadik, 38, is from Darfur but moved to Khartoum in 2003 for safety reasons. In 2006, he left Sudan and came to Lebanon. It was not until the end of 2006 that he applied for a refugee file with the UNHCR. However, he faced some problems with his application and because he could not fill the requirements, Haroun has been in an illegal situation ever since, and at risk of deportation. He was able to apply for a refugee residency in 2008, which means that he was finally given a file number as an asylum seeker. It took another nine months for Haroun to receive his refugee card, and an extra 40 days to be nationalized; then he could at last be sent to a third country. In 2010, he was granted an interview with the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), the agency in charge of transfers to third countries. He had an interview at the American embassy but received a negative response two weeks after that. He has been waiting since that day to be placed in a third country.
Haroun has been asking the UNHCR to review his file and send him with his wife to a third country, in the hope of securing better living conditions. He believes that refugees have the right to proper living conditions, decent housing in a safe environment, and access to health and education.
Taher Adam Mohammad, 52, comes from Darfur. He left Sudan for Lebanon in 2010. When entering the country, he was arrested by the military and was imprisoned for six months. While in prison, he applied for an asylum seeker status and was released after obtaining it. Shortly afterwards, he had an interview with the ICMC and has since been waiting to get an interview with an embassy.
Taher is married, but had to leave his wife and children (four boys and a girl) back in Sudan. He does not know when the family will be reunited again. For that, he has to be attributed asylum to a third country. He would then be able to apply for them to join him. Until then he has to keep on waiting.
Since his arrival in Lebanon, Taher has not been able to work. Because he does not have a stable income, he is unable to meet his family needs back home. Frustrated and hurt, he now intends to leave Lebanon, hoping for a better future for him and his family.
“While we, the strikers, have been sitting in front of the UNHCR offices for over a month now,” Taher comments, “the UN employees who pass by everyday haven’t even looked at us.” According to Taher’s testimony, the UNHCR staff members do not hesitate to order food or even organise events for a refugee day while ignoring their demands.
Taher concluded: “In Sudan, they kill us directly with their weapons. It is a fast death; while here, they are killing us bit by bit knowing that none of our basic human rights are met and that they treat us without any humanity”.
Ahmad Abdel Karim Sadik, 26, was born in Darfur and left Sudan in 2010. Before arriving to Lebanon, he crossed Libya (four days) and Syria (two days) and then reached Lebanon. Once he arrived, he applied for an application which was accepted, but several countries refused his file to travel.
While in Lebanon, he was imprisoned three times: the first time because he had no legal papers; the second time because he was caught participating in a protest in front of UNHCR asking to be deported to a third country. That day, UNHCR called the police and all protesters were arrested. The third time occurred right after he was released from jail during his previous arrest. He went to the Makhzoumi Foundation, a private organisation supposed to take care of the Sudanese refugees in Lebanon, which turned out to be corrupt. One of its roles is to take care of the refugees after they are freed from prison, by insuring them accommodation, a small amount of money and to make sure they are doing fine. Ahmad went there asking for help, and had a verbal conflict with the staff because they said they could not help him with his demands. They called the police and they took him back to jail. He was only released a month ago.
Since then, Ahmad has been homeless and unemployed. Although he can not participate in the hunger strike himself because of kidney failure, he supports his Sudanese friends in hunger strike in front of the UNHCR. He has also been facing issues with his application and constantly risks further arrest.
Now, Ahmad wants to leave Lebanon in order to secure a better life. He asks the UNHCR to stop discriminating refugees according to their religion or nationality. “Before being refugees, we are humans and deserve to be treated equally” Ahmad added.
Dawood Dafaala El Nour Abkar, 32, is originally from Fasher, Darfur, but was raised in the small village of Sonbour, a few kilometres away from his hometown. In 2007, he came to Lebanon and registered himself with the UNHCR, but his application was directly put on hold because they couldn’t find Dawood’s village. This has considerably slowed down his registration process as a refugee. Finally, in 2011, he was recognized as a refugee and since then he had two interviews with the ICMC.
While in Lebanon, he married an Ethiopian lady who used to work as a domestic worker. They now have a six-months old baby daughter. His wife has been added to his file, but she did not benefit from any aid except when she delivered her child. She suffered from health problems after the delivery, but since she is not considered as a refugee, no financial help was given for her treatment and surgery. In order to cover the financial costs, Dawood had to borrow money from his friends. He is now in debt. Because he has no fixed job, he is currently unable to reimburse his friends.
Dawood has been on hunger strike for over a month; he is fed up with his living conditions in Lebanon and wants to leave the country. Not only does he live in an illegal situation in Lebanon but he also faces racism and discrimination on a daily basis, and is deprived of basic human rights.
Mohammad Abdel Latif is from North Sudan and left his country with his family in 2008. Once he reached Lebanon, he asked to be registered as an asylum seeker but his file was rejected in 2009. Therefore, he sought for legal advisers and lawyers. It took him 45 days to finally be registered with the UNHCR and he received his nationalization papers. In 2010 he had an interview with the ICMC for the United States two weeks after received a preliminary acceptance, but he has been waiting since. Meanwhile, he decided to withdraw his file from the ICMC and transfer it to Canada, where the procedure is thought to be easier. But in order to remove your file from one country to another, the UNHCR should have informed the ICMC and make Mohammad sign an official paper asking for the transfer of his file. This did not happen, showing the lack of coordination and transparency of the UNHCR regarding its interactions with the refugees. Following this event, Mohammad and his family protested for two days in front of UNHCR. Six months later, while doing his current hunger strike, he had an interview with the ICMC (knowing that he already had removed his file), although he received an acceptance from Canada.
He is married and has two girls and two boys. One of his daughters has a chronic disease: she suffers fromcerebral palsy and is paralysed. RESTART has been helping by providing his daughter with medical assistance, but nothing very significant because the treatment is very costly and should be continued for the rest of the child’s life.
“We’re on hunger strike to ask for our basic rights,” explains Mohammad. “We’re educated people but we can’t work. This strike is not only about our traveling out of Lebanon, it’s also an awareness-call about our conditions. People know nothing about our living conditions and the daily racism and discrimination we face. Although, I’ve been receiving some aid I can’t work and sustain my family because of my illegal status. Today our situation is even worse. I’m the one on hunger strike, but my children are hungry too. What’s the point of the UNHCR if we face all these issues and our basic human rights are not even met?”
An online petition has been launched to support the hunger strikers.