More than a thousand asylum seekers have been taking part in a mass sit-in in front of the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Agadez in northern Niger since December 16. They are protesting the terrible living conditions that they are forced to endure while waiting for the UNHCR to examine their cases, and are calling for better conditions and an acceleration to the entire process.
A majority of the residents of the UN camp for asylum seekers in Agadez in northern Niger walked the 15 kilometres into town to take part in a protest on December 16.
Nearly 1,600 asylum seekers are still waiting for refugee status. The large majority of them -- more than 1,400 -- are Sudanese. Others hail from the Central African Republic, Chad and Pakistan. Most of them arrived in 2017 and they blame both the UNHCR and Nigerien authorities for the extremely difficult conditions in the camp.
Asylum seekers head to the sit-in in front of the offices of the UNHCR in Agadez, Niger. (Video filmed by our Observer Murtada Jomâa.)
The camp, which is run by the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), is spread out over five hectares on the outskirts of Agadez and is made up of 225 separate dwellings.
Our Observer Mortada Jomâa shared this photo of the camp.
"In the summer, the heat is unbearable, and, in the winter, the cold is hard too”
Thirty-year-old Salim Ahmad Hashim is an asylum seeker from Sudan. He ended up in Niger after fleeing Libya.
We can’t stay in this camp any longer. We are living in the middle of a desert, which is an extremely hostile environment. The homes are made out of corrugated metal and they don’t offer us any protection from the sand and the mosquitos. In the summer, the heat is unbearable and, in the winter -- like right now -- the cold is also hard to bear.
There are a lot of ill people, women who have suffered miscarriages, and elderly people who are in desperate need of constant, long-term medical care.
Murtada Jomâa, a 22-year-old protester originally from Sudan, also spoke to the France 24 Observers team.
Here, there are children, teenagers, people with disabilities… Yes, some people who are really ill or vulnerable are taken either to the hospital in town or even transported to Europe, but it’s not enough. [Editor’s note: 54 extremely vulnerable people were evacuated to Italy in 2018 and 2019.]
Asylum seekers take part in a sit-in in front of the offices of the UNHCR. (Photos by our Observer Murtada Jomâa).
The protesters who took part in the sit-in were angry about food shortages and an absence of medical care in the camps and said they needed more support from UN agencies. “Since the start of the protests, we’ve been drawing from our own reserves of provisions,” Jomâa complained.
On the morning of December 20, the water that the protesters have been using to drink, cook and wash was shut off.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke with Laurence Bron, from the offices of the UNCHR in Niger, about the protests.
“The sit-in is illegal because it is taking place on the territory of Niger [outside of the camp]. We can’t support the presence of these people in the streets because there is the risk that it would lead to altercations with the local population. There are other ways for them to protest against their situation like filing a complaint with the governor.”
"Right now, we just want to leave Niger"
This isn’t the first time that the asylum seekers in Agadez have held protests. Last spring and summer, they protested in front of the same building with the same demands but had no success.
Jomâa says the asylum seekers are trapped in limbo, without any prospects for the near future.
Our status still isn’t clear and neither is our future. We still haven’t obtained refugee status even with everything we’ve gone through.
My story is that I was sold to Libyan militia groups near Sabha [south of Libya], who locked me up and forced me to work without pay for five months before I managed to escape with my cellmates in late 2016. Eventually, I ended up here.
Libya left many of us with psychological trauma. Three people tried to commit suicide this year alone.
We don’t understand why we are still in Niger and we haven’t had any information on the status of our cases for the past two years. On top of that, the government of Niger has already deported some of us to Sudan or Libya, despite the dangers these places pose for us, in total contradiction with international laws! [Editor’s note: in May 2018, the government of Niger deported 145 Sudanese people back to Libya].
Many of us fled the war in Darfur and all we want is a better life, here or elsewhere. Some people from this camp agreed to return to Libya, despite the hell they endured there, probably because they want to try again to get to Europe. I don’t know what happened to them.
What’s clear is that most of us don’t want to stay in Niger. We’ve been patiently waiting for our situation to be resolved but we have lost faith. All we want now is to go to a safe country that will accept us as refugees.
Laurence Bron at UNHCR Niger said that some of the delay in processing cases has to do with the lack of resources: “The facilities are rudimentary. For example, we are not able to process any of the cases electronically.”
Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou promised last March that his country would continue to host asylum seekers but that he didn’t want them to stay long.