Sudan refugees pushed into Niger desert after camp burned down

Hentet fra The Guardian | Av Kaamil Ahmed

Sudanese refugees in Niger say they have been living in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation after security forces cracked down on protests calling for better living conditions.

Refugees have been sleeping in the desert despite low temperatures since their camp in Agadez was almost completely burned down last month after a sit-in was forcibly dispersed by Nigerien security forces. The Nigerien authorities said they arrested 355 people immediately after the fire.

The refugees have accused the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, of neglect. They also deny the agency’s claim that they burned their own tents in protest. “The Nigerien forces right now are using fear and intimidation against the refugees because of our humanitarian demands,” said Hamada Mohammed, a refugee activist who has been stuck in Niger since 2017.

He said at least 200 people are still imprisoned by Nigerien authorities.

Like many of the camp’s residents, Mohammed is from the Darfur region of Sudan, where former president Omar al-Bashir has been accused of genocide against Darfuri communities.

A statement circulated by Sudanese activists, “Save the refugees in Niger”, accused UNHCR officials of “aligning with the Nigerien government”.

The protest began on 16 December, when refugees from the camp marched to the UNHCR headquarters in Agadez town. They staged a sit-in to demand better living conditions and more clarity on their applications for resettlement.

On 4 January, they were forced back to the camp by Nigerien police and during the clashes that followed a fire gutted many of the tents.

Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR special envoy for the Mediterranean, tweeted: “80% of the reception centre destroyed by a minority of refugees from Darfur in Agadez who only want to hear about resettlement to Europe. Destroying the asylum space in #Niger or elsewhere is easier than building & protecting it. It is a sad day for refugee protection in Niger.”

His tweets angered refugees, who insisted the blaze was started by teargas fired by Nigerien authorities.

“There are no humanitarians, there’s no one doing anything for us in this difficult situation,” said a Sudanese refugee who was arrested and who did not want to be named. He was released after several days but said those remaining in jail are living in cramped conditions.

“The guards don’t turn on the lights and there are no windows. The people inside are stuck there in the heat, crying.”

A humanitarian worker in the camp, who did not want to be named because they were not authorised to speak, described the treatment of the refugees since the fire as “group punishment”.

“The burning of the camp does not justify arresting 400 people, most of whom were still in front of UNHCR when the camp was burned,” said the worker. “It’s mass arrests, suspension of assistance, of protection … it’s mind-boggling, I genuinely cannot understand how they’re getting away with this.”

The worker said the trigger for the protest was UNHCR admitting that it had lost case files for refugees hoping to be resettled.

Refugees say the camp has remained in the same condition since the fire. They shared photographs showing charred tents, and say they have been sleeping in the open, using blankets and fires built from dried bushes to keep warm. “Our suffering is becoming worse in this desert environment, for the women, the children and disabled among us and everyone who has no shelter,” said Mohammed.

Moctar Dan Yaye, from Alarme Phone Sahara, a group that protects migrants and refugees, said the refugees had been living in the camp, about 15km from Agadez town, for about two years after being moved from Libya, where they had hoped to travel to Europe to seek asylum.

Yaye said that according to humanitarian officials some of the refugees had been transferred to another camp in Niger, near the capital Niamey.

“They are there without a lot of communication. They don’t know what’s going on with their issue [for resettlement] for more than two years,” he said.

According to Médecins Sans Frontières, more than 540,000 people crossed Niger in 2019. The country has become a key stopping point for migrants trying to reach Europe through the Mediterranean but has also been receiving refugees forcibly returned from north African countries. MSF says an average of 500 people are expelled from Algeria to Niger every week.

An estimated 1,400 Sudanese refugees arrived in Agadez in 2017, fleeing violence and exploitation by human traffickers in Libya.

Most refuse to return to Sudan because they are from the Darfur region where an estimated 2.7 million people still live in internal displacement camps. The UN estimated at least 46,000 were forced to flee their homes last month during intercommunal fighting in Geneina in western Darfur.

“We’re living in a place that’s burned down, in a desert environment. We feel like we’ll end up dying here,” said the Sudanese refugee who was imprisoned after the protest.

At the time of publication, UNHCR had not commented on the refugees’ claims.