A group of African refugees and asylum seekers mostly from Sudan and Ethiopia were joined Tuesday by a small group of Lebanese supporters to raise awareness for their struggle, as they have been in a sit-in since October in front of the headquarters of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Beirut.
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With the social-political and economic crisis worsening in Lebanon, demonstrators chanted “take my file out of the drawer” and “where are the refugee rights?” due to the dire conditions and treatment received from the U.N. agency.
Some of the protesters told Middle East Eye that their UNHCR files had been closed for unclear reasons or that they have been waiting for years an answer that never came for their resettlement application.
“We’ve been here for four months, under the rain and the storms and everything and still until now, they haven’t answered us,” said Ismail Mahmoud Ibrahim, a Sudanese asylum seeker who is camped out with his wife and two children in a small plywood shack.
Helen Sahle, from Ethiopia and her husband from Sudan, were previously registered with UNHCR, but like Ibrahim, their files were closed years ago. Sahle said they unsuccessfully appealed the decision.
Their seven-year-old son is not attending school because they were not allowed to enlist him in public schools and cannot afford private education.
“My husband was working - one day yes, one day no - but he fell and broke his leg and there’s no more work,” she told Middle East Eye. “My husband can’t go back to his country and I also can’t go back to my country. Because of that, we’ve been staying here and protesting.”
As concerns about the treatment of African refugees and serious accusations of racism are being raised by rights movements like Lebanon’s Anti-Racism Movement (ARM), UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled said the agency treats all refugees the same.
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Refugee files may be closed, she said, “when a person is determined - based on an individual assessment - not to fulfill the criteria of a refugee, in accordance with international law.”
“That said, individuals always have an opportunity to have their files reopened for a review, and we do this regularly,” she said. “Persons who do not qualify as refugees are individually counseled on the decision and informed about the next steps. During counseling, we also advise persons on the services available to migrants in Lebanon.”
However, the situation of migrants and refugees has been exacerbated in recent months by the crisis in Lebanon. As the country’s pound has undergone a sudden devaluation, prices have risen and work has dwindled.
“This country is tired. It’s not able to solve its problems,” said Tigest Beshada, an Ethiopian refugee who is registered with UNHCR. “I don’t want to be another problem for Lebanon. We want to leave, and they are not helping us or working on our cases.”
Nearly 18,000 refugees from Africa and some other nationalities are currently registered in Lebanon in addition to more than 900,000 Syrian refugees and some 180,000 Palestinian refugees.
UNHCR says that they are applying the same criteria to all refugees and asylum seekers regardless of their nationalities. But the current sit-in is the latest in a series of periodic protests staged in recent years by African asylum seekers, who have complained that their cases have been neglected by the agency, in comparison to the cases of non-African refugees.