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sexta-feira, 31 de agosto de 2012

Lebanon’s Sudanese Refugees: Behind Bars for their Protest

One refugee suffers from hepatitis and was quarantined in a solitary wing. The others were fine, but the social worker told us that four of them have developed allergies, due to the prison being underground. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)
Published Friday, August 31, 2012
On Thursday August 30, the Lebanese General Security Directorate (GSD) invited Al-Akhbar to tour the detention center where 13 Sudanese refugees are being held.
This came after several reports by Al-Akhbar on the refugees who held a two-month hunger strike outside the premises of the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) before their sit-in was forcibly ended and 13 of them were taken into custody.
A letter written by the detainees and published two days ago said that one of them had set fire to his mattress in the cell and was subsequently beaten and tied up by members of the GSD.
At the prison, we waited for some time while the refugees were being prepared to meet us and be photographed.
Before they arrived, members of the security forces insisted that neither the Sudanese nor anyone else in the prison had been beaten. They explained that because they were not being interrogated, there was no need for cruelty or violence.
In the small internal courtyard, the detainees met their families while still in handcuffs. An officer said it was necessary for the safety of the detainees and the visitors. He explained that on August 21, the public prosecution – whose decision everyone was waiting for – left it up to the GSD to decide the fate of the detained refugees.
The officer maintained that the reason behind the prosecutor’s decision was the lack of space to hold them.
Leaving them in the hands of the GSD will mean that the issue will not be handled as one case. Each refugee will now be dealt with individually, based on each one’s file at the UNHCR.
According to the officer, the UN agency had set the date of resettlement for three of them and they will be able to leave on schedule.
The others will be dealt with separately according to their status. Those with closed files will face problems because they will be considered “illegal foreigners” and will either have to find a Lebanese sponsor or be deported.
UNHCR’s spokeswoman Dana Suleiman said that none of the detained refugees have a closed file. Given the commission’s behavior so far, however, it is hard to take their word.
Following almost a month of denials – since the beginning of the refugees' detention – the UNHCR admitted for the first time that it had requested the arrest of the refugees because they held a sit-in outside its doors.
The protest did not affect the day-to-day functioning of the commission as the agency’s staff and visitors used an alternative entrance.
Back in the GSD prison, the refugees we met did not appear to be beaten or physically tortured, but they were broken. They wanted to know what will happen to them.
A Caritas social worker at the prison described their health conditions in detail and informed us of the types of medication they need.
One refugee suffers from hepatitis and was quarantined in a solitary wing. The others were fine, but the social worker told us that four of them have developed allergies, due to the prison being underground.
“It is a problem that prisoners and prison guards suffer from equally. The government needs to find a solution,” the officer said.
As for the legal status of the refugees, he explained that “one of them did have residency papers, so he was released. But the others entered the country illegally, which is punishable by a month in prison.”
He denied that the released detainee was forced to sign a guarantee that he will not protest or enter the premises of the UNHCR without the agency’s permission.
Mohammed, a 17-year-old detainee, was lost in bureaucratic red tape. We helped the officer look for him in the files, but could not find him. When his friends were brought out to meet us, he was with them.
A few days ago, his mother waited outside the UNHCR building to find out when her son will be released, but received no answer.
The GSD officer informed us that since Mohammed is not an adult, they might consider moving him to another cell, but his release is still contingent on his UNHCR file.
Ever since the arrest of the refugees on August 4, the GSD has been exchanging accusations with the UNHCR about who was responsible. Despite the UNHCR’s admission that they had called in the security forces, Suleiman is convinced the organization is doing its job of protecting the refugees, because it has been working on their release since the first day.
Suleiman repeats the mantra of the UNHCR staff, who said they had warned the refugees several times before calling the police. The refugees would not listen to their warning and move away from the entrance, so they had to call the police, she explained.
“Since our goal is to make the lives of refugees easier, we will not leave them in jail. We have been working since they were arrested, to release them,” she insisted.
Given that the credibility of UNHCR has been badly dented in the refugees eyes, can it convince them that it is working in their interest?
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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