Sudanese refugees accused the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR of neglect, while denying the agency’s claim that they burned their own tents in protest. They have been sleeping in the desert despite low temperatures since their camp in Agadez was almost completely burned down last month.
The refugees were engaged in a peaceful sit-in strike for a better living condition when they were forcibly dispersed by Nigerien security forces. The Nigerien authorities said they arrested 355 people immediately after the fire.
“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.
A statement circulated by Sudanese activists, “Save the refugees in Niger”, accused UNHCR officials of “aligning with the Nigerien government”.
The protest began on December 16, 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.
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.
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.
According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), 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 about 500 people are expelled from Algeria to Niger every week. (Source: The Guardian)