Refugee sit-in in Sudan dispersed, activists appeal for solidarity

Picture: Sudan Labour Bulletin via Facebook

Sudanese police forced a sit-in by refugees in Khartoum to disperse on 15 December. Activists from Sudan Labour Bulletin explain why solidarity with refugees is a crucial task for Sudanese revolutionaries. 

Late on 15 December, a two-month long sit-in by refugees in front of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Khartoum 2 district in the center of the capital, was forcibly broken up by Sudanese police. Refugees were dumped in the middle of an empty spot that is used as a parking lot for trucks and for landfill. 

The refugees in the sit-in are demanding the resolution of their cases that have been pending for many years and that the facilitation of procedures for renewing their identity cards or issuance of new ones to those who are eligible. Refugees say that the absence of an official legal status exposes them to many personal and economic risks. Refugees have repeatedly complained of being targeted by civilian-dressed individuals who claim to be affiliated with the Sudanese police, forcing them to pay for their release, or being fired from work without compensation because they are unable to plead in the courts. They consider that the failure of the Office of the High Commissioner to legalize their status has contributed to the exacerbation of their already poor conditions. Most of the refugees are requesting resettlement in a third country, especially as conflicts flare up in their countries of origin.

Most of the refugees involved in the sit-in work in the informal sector, according to testimonies collected by the Sudan Labour Bulletin. This has been severely affected by the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic, leading to the majority of them losing their livelihoods. The denial of identity cards and the absence of financial support supposed to be provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has increased the impact of the crisis in living conditions on them. 

One of the refugees stated that he was unable to pay the monthly rent for a room in which he, his wife and his infant child have been living during the past months. “We can’t get food to eat, there is no work and the prices are increasing. But the UNHCR does not want us to give us identity cards or the pennies we are owed. Our landlord has kicked us out. What are we supposed to do?” said a refugee, who preferred to withhold his name.

So, what is the story of Sudan with the issue of asylum? And why does the dispersal of the refugees’ sit-in constitute a serious threat to the revolutionary cause? 

Host, source, and transit 

According to UNHCR figures, Sudan hosts about 1,005,5000 refugees from neighbouring countries while there are one million 800 thousand internally displaced persons and about 1 million Sudanese refugees in various countries of the world. In addition, a number of refugees are moving through Sudan as a port of migration towards other destinations in Europe, mostly via the Mediterranean. According to the International Organization for Migration, these refugees enter the informal labour market and are exposed to major violations by the security services and employers. Sudan also hosts a number of refugees from Syria and Yemen in smaller numbers, who often access official support from the government as they did during the previous regime, or they are active in business with investments in the service and trade sectors. 

There are a large number of Sudanese refugees dispersed in various parts of the world. According to conservative figures, their number is estimated at about two million Sudanese, a little less than half of whom live in Egypt, while the rest are distributed among Chad, Ethiopia, South Sudan, the United States, Europe, and finally, Israel. Sudanese refugees abroad are experiencing the same problems that prompted the sit-in in Khartoum. Last February, a number of Sudanese refugees in Niger held vigils to protest their detention in a camp in the middle of the desert and complained about the ill-treatment of official authorities, the absence of health care and the constant threats by camp officials. 

On the other hand, in 2018 Israel ordered African asylum seekers, most of them from Eritrea and Sudan, to return to their countries of origin within three months or face prison, with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu calling them “infiltrators”. May Golan, a member of the Israeli parliament for the Likud party, stressed the same message in October 2020, posting on Facebook “There is peace now in Sudan, go back to your country.” She also tweeted about expelling refugees, saying “Nothing will deter me from the struggle for an immigration policy and the expulsion of all Intruders from Israel and their return to their countries of origin.” This last message was posted November 20, just as the Sudanese media which is in favour of normalisation of relations with Israel was full of propaganda messages about peace and tolerance. This is not a new incident, as there have been many cases of attacks on African asylum seekers at the hands of demonstrators, and the Hebrew newspaper Haaretz reported an attack on Sudanese refugees during demonstrations in south Tel Aviv in 2012, during which a member of parliament from the Likud Party called them “cancer”. 

Sudan is considered a transit route for migration to Europe, through which asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa, the Lakes Region, West Africa and from Sudan itself, heading towards the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea, in what European security services call the eastern route. The European Union’s attempts to stop immigration had negative consequences for Sudan because of its support for the Bashir regime which it used as an external police force against migrants through the agreements known as the Khartoum Process. The evidence is too large to hide, which makes the issue of refugees and migrants and attempts to deal with it have major social and political consequences for Sudan. 

Massacre in Cairo

About 2,000 Sudanese refugees staged a sit-in in front of the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Mohandessin in the Egyptian capital In Cairo, in October 2005, they demanded the commission to settle them in a third country. On December 30, 2005, the Egyptian security forces cordoned off the sit-in and dispersed it with excessive force, killing 25 refugees and wounding 169 according to Egyptian police statistics, while other sources said that the number of dead reached 134 and more than 400 refugees were injured. The attack is known as the Muhammad Mahmoud Square massacre. 

Why are refugees making these demands? 

Refugees and different countries of the world are legally invoking the United Nations Convention of 1951 and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, known as the Geneva Convention. Article 1 of the Convention clearly defines who is a refugee. They are a person who is outside their country of nationality or the country of their habitual residence, due to a justifiable fear of being persecuted on the grounds of race, religion, nationality, belonging to a certain social group, or because of a political opinion, and because of that fear he cannot or does not want to seek shelter. To protect that country or to return to it for fear of persecution. In theory, a refugee is a citizen of a country who no longer enjoys the protection of his government, and that is why the international community plays this role. It is the primary responsibility of host governments to protect refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees maintains a “supervisory obligation” for this process, and intervenes as necessary to ensure that bona fide refugees are granted asylum and are not forced to return to countries where their lives are at risk. Both principles were violated in the event of the dispersal of the refugee sit-in on 15 December. According to the documents of the High Commissioner for Refugees, the rights of refugees include freedom of belief, freedom of movement from one place to another, the right to receive education, travel documents, and the opportunity to work, and the 1951 Geneva Convention likewise stresses the importance of the refugee’s obligations towards the host government. Many of the refugees who were dispersed from the sit-in believed that they did not demand anything more than what was stipulated in international conventions, including the Geneva Convention. 

Accusations of corruption

A number of refugees interviewed by the Sudan Labour Bulletin said that they have “strong complaints” about corruption in the High Commissioner for Refugees in Khartoum, and many of them say that they heard or know a number of cases that had the right to resettle in a third country after they paid large bribes to UNHCR employees. Others’ requests were delayed or rejected without justification or after they were told that they had been resettled. However, none of them stated that they were subject to a direct request to pay a bribe, but they say that their papers are always said to have been “lost” after they have passed many stages of the asylum approval process, without a convincing reason. This may be due to their fear of being personally targeted by UNHCR employees. However, corruption accusations have affected a number of UNHCR employees in previous years and included several African offices. The American network NBC conducted a 7-month long investigation, which included interviews with more than 50 refugees registered in Kenya, Uganda, Yemen, Ethiopia and Libya, with no ties to each other, in which they described corruption and exploitation by staff of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other agencies to obtain bribes or extort the refugees by various means.

The reputation of the UNHCR office in Khartoum has not been better. Sally Hayden published a report on persistent corruption in the resettlement process in Khartoum, full of individual stories and evidence of corruption and bribery in the office. According to the opinion of a current employee, the Inspector General’s Office (IGO) in Geneva, which is mandated to investigate these charges, is working slowly and nothing has changed. “The magnitude of corruption in the office… is (on) an unprecedented scale… This operation is the worst in terms of corruption [and] mismanagement,” says a former senior employee in the Khartoum office in the report. Another employee in the UNHCR office told The New Humanitarian

“If they [staff] talk they will lose their job. They will be attacked and harassed. I believe lots of people in UNHCR know about this but no one wants to talk about it. That’s a problem,” the staff member said. “They know talking about it will not do anything… Even IGO. The IGO takes a long time and nothing happens… Everybody prefers to be quiet.”

Persecutors as executioners

The refugee issue today is bigger than a single country. It can only be solved at a global scale. Military conflicts, famine, health and economic disasters have made 23 million people refugees, internally displaced or stateless. And we Sudanese are a large part of them. It has many nationalities, but the causes are the same, and they all suffer corruption, exploitation and extortion, and suffer racial discrimination and forced labor. There are no free people and no citizens in a world that turns the poor into each others’ enemies while the warmongers remain in their seats. Without solidarity that transcends nationalities and borders, without a revolutionary policy that fights racism, false nationalism and xenophobia, without decent work and a decent life for all, the dispersal of the UNHCR refugees’ sit-in will not be the last. The ruling authorities always focus on removing local sympathy for the refugees, portraying them as a plague, and blaming them for their own economic and political failures. We might be the next victims. That is why we must reject the “divide-and-conquer” logic. And if the oppressed persecute each other instead of joining together against their exploiters, all of them will go down to defeat.

What you can do: 

  • Send an email of protest at the forced dispersal of the sit-in to the UNHCR in Khartoum (SUDKH@unhcr.org) copied to the Sudanese Embassy in your country (London embassy: https://www.sudan-embassy.co.uk/contact/
  • Pass a resolution in solidarity with refugees in your union branch and get involved in campaigning for their rights 

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