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This time last year, more than 900 Darfuri men, women, and children staged a sit-in in a makeshift tent camp outside the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency) in Amman, Jordan. The refugees claimed the organization was not meeting their needs and that it was becoming impossible to live as refugees in a country that provided no camp for them and would not allow them to work. Jordan and the UN, moreover, gave them limited to no protection from the racial discrimination and abuse they experienced from locals. Many at the protest said they were in the process of being evicted from their apartments, since they had no money to pay rent.
After about a month, the protest had grown to around 950 people. Jordanian authorities then shocked the international aid community and human rights advocates worldwide by deporting almost 600 men, women, and children at the protest back to Khartoum, where the government is accused of war crimes, illegal land grabbing, rape, and genocide. One year later, I spoke with members of the deported now dispersed throughout Sudan, Egypt, Libya, and even Europe, as well as those who were left behind in Jordan, to find out what happened to them and the lessons it should teach the international humanitarian community.
Jordanian police arrived in the refugee encampment early in the morning of December 16 to tell the demonstrators that their protest had worked—they were being resettled to Australia, Canada, and even the United States. According to the refugees I interviewed, they were told that all they had to do was board the buses the police had brought to the UNHCR building. The demonstrators did so, only to be handcuffed once onboard.
One refugee, Abu Zaid, said that he received a phone call from others at the protest. “Our friends said: ‘Come quick, the police have told us our protest worked and that they will take us to the airport to fly us to Canada and the United States.’ So we left at once and went to the UNHCR building. Once we arrived we were put on a bus, and our hands were tied…we knew something was wrong.”
Mubarak, a member of the community whose wife and seven children were deported, explained that his wife called him. “I said: ‘Be patient, don’t leave, I’m coming home.’ She said: ‘No, no, everyone is leaving. Hurry, hurry and follow us!’ And with this the line broke. To this day I have no contact with them.”
According to the refugees, they were then taken to a military warehouse just a few kilometers away from Jordan’s Queen Alia International Airport, where they were held overnight. Many of those being deported were screaming to be released. In order to “calm” them, as they put it, police shot tear gas at and beat the prisoners. During the chaos, some families were separated; others managed to escape.
According to eyewitnesses, once the buses arrived at the airport the next morning, they were greeted by more Jordanian authorities and the Sudanese ambassador to Jordan, who had been assisting with the deportations. Hours later, the refugees were deported. It took three large planes to deliver all of them to Khartoum.
“They tied me to my chair in the plane. Treatment was worse on the later flights. There were Jordanian police with us in the plane,” said an asylum seeker and activist from the community I will call Ahmed, whose name has been changed in this story to protect his identity.
Prior to the deportations, a UNHCR spokeswoman told us, the organization believed that the protesters were troublemakers who didn’t speak for the over 3,500 registered Darfuri refugees and asylum seekers. She said that if those gathered outside the UN office had concerns, they should have told the UNHCR-selected refugee representative, who would have relayed them to UNHCR staff.
The demonstrators claimed that a population of over 3,500 had a multitude of concerns, which had been reported to representatives, protection officers, emergency hot lines, and UNHCR staff during individual meetings, but that nothing had changed. In fact, their situation had become worse.
There had been a smaller protest one year earlier—only around 100 Sudanese—that was broken up after one week by police with batons. In interviews with Alice Su of Vice News following that protest, refugees claimed that UNHCR had threatened the protesters with closing their resettlement cases if they didn’t break up their rally. “No country will accept troublemakers,” they were told.
In Su’s article, UNHCR Representative to Jordan Andrew Harper is also quoted as saying that a resettlement case would never have been stopped because of an applicant’s participation in a protest. But he shared a UNHCR briefing with Su stating that many Sudanese resettlement cases had been deprioritized “as a result of violent behavior and hostility toward UNHCR staff.”
In a phone call I placed to UNHCR the day of the deportations, a communications officer insisted that UNHCR was trying to convince authorities not to deport the protesters but then complimented the Jordanians for the manner in which they broke up the protest.
According to a number of accounts from the deported, when the first plane arrived in Khartoum, the Sudanese government greeted the refugees with sweets. But by the time the second plane had landed, the cameras had left and all the deported were promptly taken to be interrogated. Some were jailed, and others were released after police confiscated all forms of identification and told them that they could not leave Khartoum.
“I was taken to a room filled with rubbish and spent the whole day there. At night they threw water and woke me up. They asked me questions about moving to Jordan, they knew about all the houses I lived in in Jordan, and they knew what I had said against the government and UNHCR,” said Alaa, one of the deported. “I spent seven days there for investigation. At night they didn’t let us sleep, they beat us with police sticks on my feet when I was answering questions. Every night they asked questions and beat us.”
Ahmed gave his own account: “During my arrest, interrogation, and torture, they said I should go on TV to say the deportation was voluntary rather than forced or they will kill me.” He said that he had two choices: “Either be killed or go on official TV, so I chose to go to the TV station.” While at the television station, he was able to escape. “I ran out and went outside to the front gate of the TV station. No one asked me anything because I was wearing the same clothes as the TV employees.”
Those who were released knew that staying in Khartoum put them and their families in jeopardy. Many thus paid smugglers small portions of money to get them into Egypt and found themselves in Cairo.
Sadly, what awaited them there wasn’t much different from what they experienced in Amman. “We feel we have no security here either. It’s worse than Amman,” says Ali, a 25-year-old now living in Cairo. “UNHCR staff members are issuing us entirely new files, so we are having to start the resettlement process all over again.”
As the Abdel Fattah el-Sisi–led government’s relationship with Khartoum became closer over the past year, those among the deported who had fled for refuge to Egypt became increasingly concerned for their safety. Story after story came in of members of the displaced Darfuri community being abducted by Sudanese intelligence operating in Cairo and being deported back to Sudan by Egyptian authorities in cooperation with Khartoum. Over the past five months, members of the community have relayed multiple accounts of threats and physical abuse by individuals associated with the Sudanese embassy in Egypt. “Since I came to Cairo I’ve been suffering from pursuit and attacks by the Sudanese security forces,” Sameer, another of the refugees now living there, told us. “They knew me since I came from Sudan, and the pursuit has continued continually. I am living in panic, fear, and lack of security and protection.” He went on to speak of his escape from a kidnapping by Egyptian human traffickers in August.
Humanitarian assistance is even more lacking in Egypt. Because Jordan is experiencing one of the greatest influxes of refugees in the modern century, there is, at the very least, a multitude of nongovernmental organizations, UN entities, and human rights groups from around the world in the country. In Egypt, the humanitarian community is much smaller. With Sisi’s government imposing increasingly strict regulations on foreign NGOs, it continues to shrink.
Humanitarian assistance is even more lacking in Egypt than in Jordan.
Upon registering with UNHCR in any country, refugees or asylum seekers are supposed to be given safe refuge from the harm, war, or threat toward their personal security that drove them to flee their country of origin. UNHCR can then provide additional assistance if it deems a refugee to be in need of emergency financial aid for health purposes, personal security, or living conditions. UNHCR says that registration also “helps protect refugees against refoulement [forced return], arbitrary arrest and detention.”
Darfuris in Cairo whom I spoke with, however, told me that even though more and more members of their community are reregistering with UNHCR, they have received little to no assistance of any kind.
One year later, Mubarak remains alone in Amman and still has no idea where his wife or seven children are. He points to a large plastic bag in his flat that holds the remaining belongings of his wife and kids:
“This bag and I are never apart. Never apart. This bag reminds me…sometimes my wife, Abdul Salam [his son], and I used to sit on Friday evenings in the old Roman amphitheater together. For this reason, I am carrying my memories with me now.... Sometimes I remember Ayda, sometimes Abdul Salam, sometimes I look at photos and sometimes I cry.... I keep asking for God’s forgiveness, sometimes I ask, Why am I in this world without a family?”
Mubarak says that over the last year, he’s developed severe depression, even becoming suicidal a few months ago. He’s now receiving counseling from an NGO that works with those experiencing severe cases of post-traumatic stress disorder.
For the past six months, Mahmoud, another refugee, has been all by himself. Months after his wife was deported, two young men molested his seven-year-old daughter. Because Mahmoud didn’t have the money to move from the neighborhood where the crime happened, UNHCR protocol called for protection services to place both the victim and Mahmoud’s younger two-year-old daughter in an orphanage. UNHCR and family protection services said they won’t give the children back to their father until their mother is back in Jordan, a condition clearly impossible to meet. “I honestly don’t know what to do anymore. I’ve lost my wife, now I’ve lost my girls. It seems like it’s impossible to get them both back. I don’t think I can take this anymore,” he says.
Shatha, a young woman whose husband was deported, leaving her alone in Amman, tells us: “He was all I had. At least then we had each other. I don’t know what to do. I’m really scared. I don’t know anyone here,” she says before her tears cut her off.
After enduring the difficult conditions in Jordan, the trauma of deportation, the stress of being smuggled into Egypt, and now the same circumstances they thought they had left behind, some refugees are pursuing even riskier attempts at a better life.
This past June, eight of the deported Darfuris decided that their only chance of a better life was to pay a smuggler to take them via a small boat, filled with other paying refugees, from Libya to Europe. Boats like these frequently sink or capsize in stormy conditions.
Abdullah’s brother was one of the eight. Abdullah recalls waking up to the event that made international news: his brother’s boat had capsized, and he and more than 100 other passengers had drowned. Although he was filled with sorrow at the loss of his brother and well aware that such tragedies are frequent, Abdullah hopes to earn enough money working at a farm outside Benghazi to eventually try it himself.
“The UN will not work on our behalf, they will not help us. What else can we do? Do you know what we’ve experienced in Darfur? To take this boat is all I can do,” he laments.
And for some, the risk has paid off. Ahmed, after smuggling himself out of Khartoum and feeling extremely vulnerable in Cairo, was able to make it to Libya this summer. In July, he and three friends boarded a small boat two hours outside Tripoli that was filled far beyond maximum capacity with other asylum seekers. “After we left, the boat tipped over because there were too many people. It was a small boat but had around 100 people. Half of the people died, but I was saved by an Italian army boat, which took me to Sicily.”
He continues: “I eventually came to France but had to cross the border on foot because they wouldn’t let us in. I didn’t pay a smuggler because I didn’t have money. I eventually made it to Monaco and then to Nice. I got to Paris on a train.”
Human rights and refugee advocates say that what happened last December should be a haunting reminder to all of why it is indeed so important to defend, fight for, and protect refugees like the Darfuris.
“This is a textbook case for why we have a refugee system, why we have refugee law,” says Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. He adds that Jordan should be adequately supported to deal with the refugee influx it has endured. In turn, donor countries should also take steps to ensure that Jordan abides by the international obligation “not to send vulnerable refugees back to places where their lives or freedoms are in danger.”
Betsy Fisher is the director of policy for the International Refugee Assistance Project, which provides free legal assistance to refugees. She believes that “so far, the international community has failed” marginalized refugee communities such as the Darfuris. Fisher also points out that Jordan has signed the Convention Against Torture: “By returning refugees to a place where they feared being tortured, and where many actually were tortured, Jordan contravened that [treaty’s] principle,” she says.
In a country such as Jordan, which takes in not only Syrian but Palestinian, Iraqi, Sudanese, Somali, and Yemini refugees, it’s often the refugee population whose country of origin is currently dominating news headlines that is the easiest to raise funds to assist. This dynamic enables both UN entities such as UNHCR and their NGO counterparts to write grants and focus project proposals on that particular group. The benefit is that a lot of money can be raised to help many who certainly deserve it. Unfortunately, this dynamic also fails to address some of the most critically urgent cases of refugees fleeing other coutnries.
It’s often the refugee population whose country of origin is currently dominating news headlines that is the easiest to raise funds to assist.
In a piece published by the Middle East Report covering last December’s deportations and the overall plight and need of Darfuri and Somali refugees in the Middle East, Rochelle Davis, a researcher and professor at Georgetown University, writes that the plight and recent history of the Darfuris seeking refuge within Jordan, in Egypt, and throughout the Arab world call for the international aid community to rethink this status quo distribution of financial assistance to refugees, shifting focus to “most in need” rather than citizenship. Sudanese and Somalis’ “citizenship, rather than their status as displaced, frames how most international NGOs and the UNHCR respond to them, which means provision of assistance and programming only when funds are unrestricted (rarely) or when budgets allow on an ad hoc basis.”
Davis suggests that humanitarians recognize how the current citizenship-based system “creates a hierarchy of service provision that often addresses immediate refugee flows, but ignores or normalizes as less needy those who come from situations of protracted displacement.”
Back in Amman, Mahmoud finally received custody of his daughters. He’s overjoyed about that, but he still has a heavy heart. “Even when I sit to eat, I think of my wife, what they’re eating, and imagine how she feels away from her husband and daughters and her family, alone in Egypt,” he told us. “It’s very difficult, but still we hold on to the hope for a better tomorrow.”
Mubarak also dreams of better days ahead: “Yes, if I find my family, I will not believe my eyes, I will not believe it. If I see them, I will die, I will die out of happiness. To find them? I see it as if it’s impossible.”