Sudanese Asylum seekers in Lebanon: a battle for visibility and human rights
There are many ways in anthropology and cultural studies to describe an un-human, a person who does not fit into our category of humanity, someone that somehow is not visible to us socially as a human. My friend once told me a story that I never fully believed. It was about a man he used to bully. One day, his friends and him decided to treat this man as if he was invisible. When he called them, they would ignore him. If he came up to them, they would act as if he was not there. They acted as if he did not exist for around two weeks until the guy was crying so hard they had to stop. “He almost went insane”, said my friend.
It is hard to “talk” about and represent people who exist but don’t “really” exist, the invisible ones, those we ignore everyday and act as if they are not there. Beirut is full of these invisibles. When I was walking in Hamra the other day, there was, in the middle of the sidewalk, a woman talking to a man: “kifak, shoo akhbarak? Kif el madame? Kifak be hal shawbeit?” and between them, a man with his back twisted all the way to the floor, spreading his arm and hand between them, looking at them both and listening to their conversation. An invisible man, I thought.
We do that all the time, ignore certain people, try not to have eye contact with them, etc. On a more structural and institutional level, however, this is somewhat what the UNHCR is doing with the Sudanese asylum seekers in Lebanon, by acting as if they don’t exist as humans with rights and dignity.
These Sudanese communities are not refugees yet. Lebanon works as a transitional country between the refugee-to-be and the host country (in this case USA). However, in the waiting time between abandoning the Sudanese nationality and seeking refugee status in the States, Sudanese refugees-to-be become invisible, and are treated as such by both the Lebanese State and by the very institution that is supposed to help and protect them.
The story of the Sudanese asylum seekers, the invisibles, is both appalling and telling of the paradoxes and gaps in what is consider “human” and “human” rights by the international community.
(A spoiler alert: it should go as no surprise, unless you are a silly idealist and humanist (whatever that means these days) to you that structural racism plays a big deal in producing what is human and what is not in this story, and also what is “sexy” in terms of refugees right now, ie what does the dear donor himself acknowledges as refugee, as war, conflict and suffering.)
The Sudanese community in Lebanon who are seeking refugee status in the US (because, unlike other communities seeking refugee status, for some reason, Sudanese will only be received in the US and not Europe and have no choice in the matter) are claiming that they have been waiting for too long for their refugee status to become valid.
Although the reason for the delay is a “security check” that is required by the American State, the waiting period is unjustifiable and leaves these communities in a very exploitative position in Lebanon. In this liminal space, sudanese asylum seekers become incredibly vulnerable and invisible socially. They are exploited both by the UNHCR staff and by Lebanese society and state, who treat them both as non-humans, as less than humans, by depriving them of their basic human rights.
Living in Lebanon without any form of social protection or support, without any way to work except to rely on an unsystematic delivery of services from UNHCR, is only producing more exploitation and racism towards these communities:
“My landlord kicks me out of my house once every other week…He knows I have no papers so he takes advantage of that. When I get home I find my stuff thrown outside and I talk to him and he says: “I want you to pay 100.000L.L. more. I tell him I don’t have that much money. He tells me, go ask the UNHCR for more money” this is one of dozen stories of abuse and exploitation that these communities undergo without any protection from the UNHCR or the Lebanese state.
Many of these Sudanese communities agreed that they are being treated “like children” by the UNHCR. When they come to ask about their refugee status, or when they come and ask for aid, the staff laughs at their accent and talk to them “as if we are kids”. One of them said that “I went to ask for food and money, but one staff asked me to get a job: “Why wont you get a job, he said, smiling. You look fit and healthy, go work and make a living . “You know I cannot work in Lebanon” I told him, why wont you give me what I am entitled to?”
Stateless and invisible to the International community, Sudanese asylum seeks decided to use their only available and last human trait to protest: their bodies. They went on hunger strike to become visible as humans in distress. Like Khader Adnan’s hunger strike, Sudanese refugees are asking for recognition that they are humans and that they deserve dignity. By their hunger strike, they are signaling the failure of UNHCR in protecting them in Lebanon and their distress over what goes on inside this institution.
some Sudanese asylum seekers talked about how they were ridiculed and mocked “like children” when they started their sit-in outside of the UNHCR building. “They will walk and laugh at us in our face. When they finally allowed us to meet them, they promised us all these unrealistic promises and gave us nothing concrete. Then they did not do anything. We tried to explain to them what our demands were and why we were protesting, but they seemed not to listen”
On August 4th, after 50 days of hunger strike, UNHCR seems to have had enough of this “childish” game. Sudanese strikers were arrested and detained in the Adlieh prison for daring to be too visible. 23 days later, 14 of them are still in detention. Ironically enough, one the Sudanese Asylum seekers had said before that the only way to become visible enough to get a refugee status is for them to go in prison. He told the story of an asylum seeker who was beaten up by a Lebanese man and went to the police station to complain. When they asked for their papers, he didn’t have any so he was arrested and put into prison. Shortly enough, his refugee papers magically arrived and he left to the US. This Sudanese trouble maker made enough trouble to become a refugee.
However, the detainees will not receive any refugee papers. This time they became more visible. The arrested Sudanese Asylum seekers are apparently bullied and threatened by the UNHCR to sign a commitment not to protest outside of the UNHCR doors. Their very release is conditioned onto signing this commitment.
If this turns out to be right, UNHCR would be violating the basic right of any human being, the right to protest for dignity and recognition of his or her humanity. This situation seems shocking and surprising. How can an institution that draws its authority from the International community and whose function is to protect and serve asylum and refugee communities end up exploiting them and endangering their very own human rights? Who supervises the international community and the United Nations, that supervises us all?
It is very crucial to show support for these Sudanese Asylums seekers and help them become more visible as humans with un-debatable rights to protest and complain. Join the solidarity protest this Wednesday for the immediate release of the detainees by the very own institution that claims to protect human right values and principles.
The demands of the Sudanese asylum seekers are the following:
-The immediate and unconditional release of the detained strikers/asylum seekers.
-The cessation of the UNHCR’s abuse of their power and position to violate the asylum seekers and refugees’ basic rights when they should be protecting and supporting them.
-A new memorandum of understanding between the UNHCR and the ministry of Interior stipulating mainly that asylum seekers or applicants to refugee status should not be arrested and/or detained under any circumstance; particularly and especially because they don’t have residence permits or legal papers (pending the UNHCR processing).
“Refugees like Syrians and Iraqis are not treated like that, why are we?” good question, I thought. Have I heard other refugees complain? No, I thought to myself, as i sat listening to the Sudanese Asylum seekers tell us about their strike a few weeks before they were arrested. But in the future, I will. I will witness other forms of structural exploitation of refugees and displaced communities from different communities in Lebanon, which will lead me to realize that there is something essentially flawed with what we refer to as “international committee” itself and its apparatuses.
But that is a story for another day. Our story today is about invisible ones.
Support the Sudanese Asylum seekers’ search for their humanity. We all seem to be losing our humanities very quickly these days..