Wednesday, June 27, 2012

UNHCR Calls the Cops on Sudanese Refugees attending World Refugee Day

Yes. It’s true. Yesterday, we went to Vantage Points, a film festival organized by UNHCR in Metropolis Sofil to mark World Refugee Day. This was happening while 20 Sudanese refugees had been on hunger strike for 15 days to protest their maltreatment. We escorted 4 refugees on hunger strike and their families (including 8 children). The kids handed out flyers to the attendees that explain the reasons behind the hunger strike. Check photos here.

They were completely ignored by UNHCR. When the film started, we went into the theater and lifted a banner (photo below) and they held up posters that said “Why won’t you meet with us?” The cinema staff asked us to get out of the theater and not disrupt the film screening. So we got out and sat in the lobby. An hour passed and still nobody from UNHCR would talk to the refugees. One person earlier only asked them if they wanted to see the movie.

After an hour, Tony, who works at Sofil came to tell us that he was obliged to notify the authorities of our presence. We asked why and he said because we were bring disruptive. Note that we had only been sitting in the lobby for an hour quietly, waiting for the audience to finish the movie, thinking maybe they might want to talk to the Sudanese refugees then. Tony had asked us to leave before, but we insisted on staying. He then warned us that the police might come. Why? we asked. He repeated that we had been disruptive. I asked him if UNHCR had asked him to call the police and he said yes – although UNHCR staff then denied that they had called the cops. You can call Tony yourself and ask him.

The police arrived, asked us to leave, and we insisted on staying. They agreed that we weren’t being disruptive and told us we could stay but couldn’t do any action on the premises. So we stayed. 15 minutes later, a second police patrol came with a higher-ranking officer. UNHCR finished their movie and came out into the lobby to have wine and snacks. They stood there eating, drinking, and chatting, with the police standing between them and the refugees (kids, again).

The level of ignoring at the event was surreal to me. Not a word, nothing. Not a hello, how do you do, nothing. The Sudanese families were completely invisible. UNHCR kept chatting with their audience at the event, saying they couldn’t do anything about their situation. But how could they not even say hello? If it is true that it’s not in their hands, why can’t they just meet with the refugees and explain everything and reach a compromise? How could they treat them with such indifference and impertinence? It was pretty obvious that they had circulated an internal memo asking their staff not to talk to the refugees at all. I’m pretty sure they were expecting some action at their event. They seemed unsurprised and unaffected.

It was one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen – to be so invisible to people in power. Our Sudanese friends were less shocked than we were, having experienced this sort of treatment for years. What else did you expect? they asked us. Perhaps I was expecting a tad bit more humanity and compassion from the people who make their living off of helping others.

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