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Beirut Has A Refugee Crisis That's Not About Middle East Peace

Few know the Lebanese capital has been a destination for immigrants in recent years. But now a group of Sudanese men are on a hunger strike, demanding that the UN resettle recognized refugees and grant temporary status to those waiting for their papers.

Sudanese refugees protesting in front of the UNHCR (Lebanonesia)
Sudanese refugees protesting in front of the UNHCR (Lebanonesia)
Laure Stephan

BEIRUT - "Aren't you hot?" a United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) employee asks the small group on the sidewalk. The Sudanese refugees are lying on cardboard boxes in front of the agency's headquarters in Beirut. Other bits of cardboard set on a low wall protect them from the sun, but little else can alleviate the suffocating summer heat.

Twenty-one Sudanese men have been on a hunger strike since June 11. They are demanding that the UNHCR "immediately refer for resettlement recognized refugees who fulfill the requested criteria, and fully assist in the regulation of temporary legal status in Lebanon." These men repeatedly cite a lack of transparency and the slow procedures of the UNHCR, which is both seen as a last hope and a massive bureaucratic machine.

They are all the more frustrated that in Lebanon they are in a legal no-man's land: the country hasn't ratified the 1951 Convention on refugees, which means that no legal protection is granted to those have a refugee status, who find themselves in a very vulnerable situation. They also face widespread racism.

A bureaucratic nightmare

The sit-in is a strange scene amidst the luxurious buildings of this upscale neighborhood in the Lebanese capital. Women and children join the men during the day. Mohammed, 41, says he won't leave or eat until he knows which country will be his new home. He left Khartoum for Lebanon in 2008 with his three children and his wife, and obtained refugee status in 2010.

Since then, he has been waiting, and can't understand why two years have passed without him getting the necessary papers for a new start, far from Sudan and far from Lebanon. In Beirut, Mohammed's daily life is difficult. "I don't have papers to work, I clean houses; we share an apartment with a few other families," he says.

Forty-two-year-old Fatima, who is from the Darfur region, barely speaks Arabic: she only speaks her native Fur language. She hands over a piece of paper, carefully protected in a plastic sleeve: it's the UNHCR document that proves she, her husband and children are asylum seekers. She obtained this certificate after four years of procedures, but it still doesn't give her refugee status.

Like many other Sudanese, 46-year-old Zacharia, also from Darfur, arrived in Lebanon illegally via Syria. The latter, before the current revolution and violence, was a transit country. Zacharia arrived there in 2005, paid a smuggler to cross the border and reached Beirut. He was jailed for several months for illegal presence on Lebanese territory.

In January, more than six years after his arrival, Zacharia finally obtained refugee status. He sums up the situation of his fellow countrymen in Lebanon: "If you are sick, you don't go to the hospital out of fear of arrest. So you don't get treatment." Yet medical and educational aid is granted by the UNHCR to asylum seekers and refugees.

The organization also intervenes to free foreigners placed under its protection when they are arrested by Lebanese security services. "Most of the time, we are able to get them freed," says Dana Sleimane, the UNHCR spokesperson in Beirut. This isn't enough to reassure the refugees, who dread imprisonment, or even expulsion. Case point: the police raid on the first day of their hunger strike, during which several protestors were taken in for questioning and then released.

An unwelcoming country

Mohammed talks about Lebanon, a country that doesn't want him: "Once, I wanted to go to a popular restaurant, near the sea. I had money to pay. But they didn't let me sit down. The staff asked me to leave."

According to him, the refugees from other Arab countries, like Iraqis, are in a much more enviable situation (over 11,000 people are registered as asylum seekers or refugees by the UNHCR, only 600 of them are Sudanese). "At least they aren't humiliated because of their skin color, they aren't called monkeys!" says Mohammed, who also believes that Iraqis, who get more media coverage, are favored by the UNHCR for resettlement.

Dana Sleimane denies this: "For the Sudanese refugees, we always signal that it is "urgent" when we send their files, because they are in a fragile situation in Lebanon. In Beirut, almost 20% of the refugees are resettled every year, which is one of the highest percentages for Arab countries." But the quotas put in place by host countries limit the organization's efforts, which isn't able to soften the Lebanese stance on asylum policies.

Saad Kurdi, a militant of the Movement Against Racism in Lebanon, visits the protestors every evening to show his support and ask about their health. He wishes that the "UNHCR, even if it can't guarantee a future for the refugees in another country, would make it possible for them to live a peaceful life in Lebanon."

Read more from Le Monde in French.

Photo - Lebanonesia

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Photo of a sunset over the USS Nimitz with a man guiding fighter jets ready for takeoff

U.S fighter jets ready for takeoff on the USS Nimitz

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