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Story Publication logo November 21, 2014

Sudanese Refugees Are Being Attacked by Angry Mobs and Police in Jordan


Image by Alice Su. Jordan, 2014.

How do refugees mobilize to take care of themselves when aid agencies fail, the international...

Media file: img_0051_2.jpg
Sudanese protesters in front of the UNHCR offices in Amman. Image courtesy of Sudanese refugee community. Jordan, 2014.

Broken glass, rocks, and a bloodstained mattress littered the floor of a house in Amman, Jordan. Ahmad, one of 10 Sudanese refugees who used to live in the house, pointed at an iron gate guarding the courtyard.

"This is new," the 27-year-old from Darfur said.

The house has been empty for almost two months, evacuated after a mob of Jordanians assaulted the Sudanese refugees, ripping out the old gate, breaking all the doors and windows, and shooting one man in the stomach.

"They were yelling, 'We don't want Sudanese here,'" Ahmad recalled.

He said a crowd of about 30 came to their house at 10pm on October 11 with rocks, bricks, and guns. They shouted "Abu Samra," a derogatory racial term for dark-skinned people. He recognized three of the attackers as neighbors.

The refugees tried to keep the mob out. Ahmad was standing directly in front of the gate when they broke it down and shot him. The other Sudanese dragged Ahmad to a room inside, locked the doors, and called the police and their landlord for help. By the time the police showed up two hours later, the Jordanian mob had dispersed. Ahmad went to the hospital for emergency treatment. Their landlord came the next evening.

"Personally, I got afraid to come alone at night," said Abu Amer, the landlord. "They had guns, right? I told the Sudanese, just call the police for help."

Jordan hosts some 3,000 Sudanese refugees, mostly single men from Darfur seeking refuge alongside more than 600,000 Syrians, 30,000 Iraqis, and several thousand people who have fled other countries. While the Sudanese have long complained of negligence as NGOs focus on helping Syrians and Iraqis, aid workers point out that Jordan at least offers them protection. Even if the refugees are hungry and cold, at least they've escaped the arbitrary violence of Sudan.

But as tensions escalate, the local police turn a blind eye, and the UN's overstretched refugee agency (UNHCR) fails to respond, the Sudanese refugees say the protection in Jordan has disappeared too.

A month and a half after the incident that led to Ahmad's shooting, no one has been arrested. Abu Amer is mostly concerned with property losses. The landlord paid about $200 for the new iron gate, and spent more repairing the windows and doors broken by the mob. Now he's trying to shush rumors of the attack so he can find new tenants. In the meantime, he wants the Sudanese to pay around $1,400 worth of rent for October and November. "It's all loss for me," the landlord said.

According to the UNHCR's security report, the Jordanians attacked simply because they did not want the Sudanese living among them.

"I think this is a personal thing," Abu Amer said. "Two days before, a black man hit one of the neighbors' relatives downtown. So the family wanted to punish all Sudanese."

The refugees hadn't heard of this incident, but they weren't surprised. "Sudanese are harassed all the time in Jordan," Ahmed said.

While Syrians are registered as refugees on arrival, the Sudanese must wait 18 months just for their first interview. Then comes a series of home visits and more interviews until they are accepted as refugees. Once accepted, they wait for the resettlement country to process health tests and security checks.

These procedures take years, with virtually no food or cash assistance, no camps, and no legal way of employment in the meantime. The Sudanese end up working illegally, which often leads to their arrest and sparks tensions within the host community.

"We are working just to eat," said Habeeb, a 26-year-old Sudanese refugee. "Then the police say, 'You don't have permits,' and put us in prison."

Ismael Haroun, the Sudanese community's informal representative, attends monthly meetings to voice refugee concerns with UNHCR officials, including protection from recent bouts of violence. But Haroun said the refugee agency only repeats the same response: "We are not allowed to interfere with police business."

The UNHCR appointed a lawyer, Jaafar Mastreehy, to follow up on Ahmad's shooting. Mastreehy said local police identified two culprits and sent their names to police across the city.

"There is real protection for refugees," Mastreehy said. "They have the same rights as Jordanians in the courts, in protection and under the law. There is no difference."

The refugees disagree. They ask why police waited two hours to come to the house. The police said they were busy responding to a large protest at the same time.

"Sudanese feel that we are less important," Haroun said. "Whenever a Sudanese calls 911, they don't take it seriously. But these are emergencies. You can't say, 'We are very busy, so you have to die.'"

Last week, these frustrations reached a boiling point. Several hundred Sudanese men, women, and children protested in front of UNHCR's office, holding up signs demanding protection and aid.

"We are homeless," one of the signs read. "We need security. We want UNHCR to know."

The refugees slept in front of UNHCR's building for two days starting November 9. The UNHCR didn't address their demands, and Jordanian police eventually asked the demonstrators to disperse. When they refused, the police forcibly removed them. The refugees said the police attacked them on November 12, beating and kicking them and launching tear gas. Six refugees were hospitalized after losing consciousness.

Jordanian police did not respond to requests for comment from VICE News. UNHCR representative Andrew Harper said the police intervened because protestors were trying to enter the refugee agency's grounds.

"There should be no violence on either side, full stop," Harper said. "We have to be careful that refugee groups don't perceive protests as a means of getting advantages. We support those who are vulnerable, not those who engage in violence."

But Harper didn't witness the protests. His office is on a different side of Amman, and he conceded that the UNHCR's version of events is based entirely on the account of the Jordanian police. "I didn't hear that anyone was hospitalized," Harper said.

Mohamad, a 35-year-old Sudanese refugee, was injured in the protest when police kicked him in the abdomen. Speaking to VICE News from his hospital bed in Amman, he said the protesters planned to be peaceful, but tried to enter the UNHCR grounds when police began beating them.

"We were silent when the police told us to move," Mohamad said. "I tried to climb the UNHCR wall because I thought it might be safer inside."

The one thing Sudanese fear more than physical attack is cancellation of their refugee status and deportation back to Sudan. "All the refugees are afraid of that," said 19-year-old Abdelmonem, who fled from Darfur in March.

Refugees told VICE News that UNHCR staff members threated protesters with stopping their asylum or resettlement procedures, telling them, "no country will accept troublemakers."

Harper denied that allegation. "That's rubbish," he said, stating that participation in protests should not affect a person's refugee status. But Harper shared a UNHCR briefing with VICE News that said many Sudanese resettlement cases have been deprioritized, "as a result of violent behavior and hostility toward UNHCR staff."

Haroun, the Sudanese community's representative at the UNHCR, said protests aren't useful if they only result in violence. But, he added, he can't stop the refugees from protesting if they are desperate.

Desperation is exactly why the Sudanese fled their country for Jordan in the first place. Back in his new home in Amman, Habeeb recounted his own motivations for leaving Darfur.

"The militias were raping our women when they went for firewood," Habeeb said. "Fifty displaced people were killed in my camp. I thought, today I will find my brother killed, tomorrow my sister — I will go find humanity somewhere else."

But Habeeb said Jordan has not been safe either.

"We protested because we have nowhere else to go," he said. "We need protection. We are afraid."



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