At least 355 Sudanese refugees have been arrested in Niger, accused of being the 'ringleaders' of events that led to the destruction of most of the refugee camp at Agadez by fire at the weekend. The number of injuries is hard to ascertain due to conflicting reports.
As reported by Radio Dabanga this week, Niger security forces broke up a 20-day sit-in by about 1,000 Sudanese refugees in front of the offices of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Agadez on Saturday. Photo and video footage attests to excessive violence.
Speaking to Radio Dabanga from Agadez on Sunday, a refugee reported that 453 refugees were initially detained. He asserted that 230 refugees suffered various injuries, and alleged that army officers and policemen 'stole' 670 mobile phones from them.
He said their camp burned down completely. Hundreds of refugees, among them children, women, disabled, and seniors, spent Sunday night in the arid desert in the freezing cold. There are shortages of water, food, and medicines.
The refugees called on the international community to intervene urgently and save them from the conditions in which they live. They also demand their resettlement procedures be completed.
Agadez High Court
On Thursday, Niger's High Court ruled that the sit-in was unlawful and ordered the refugees to disperse "before it was too late".
Prosecutor Seyni Saidou at the Agadez High Court held a briefing on Monday to which the private press was not invited, however Radio Dabanga has seen the contents.
"On 16 December 2019, several dozen asylum seekers began a protest march that led them to the local UNHCR Agadez office. They had decided to illegally occupy the public spaces around the office and maintained a sit-in that lasted until 4 January 2020.
"Because they occupied these spaces in violation of the law, the issue was placed on the agenda of the regional security council meeting of 2 January 2020. During this meeting, it was decided to enforce the law, including to disperse them and return them to their camp. Thus, on 4 January 2020, regional and municipal authorities moved to the site accompanied by the security forces.
“After the mayor requested that they disperse, the security guards found that the people did not comply, so they intervened to collect them and return them to their accommodation site.
“Once there, as soon as they got off the buses and trucks carrying them, they set fire to the centre and at the same time targeted the police by throwing projectiles at them. The services’ findings indicate that of the 331 homes, 290 are completely burned. As well as the infirmary. Bus windshields were broken and two people were slightly injured. 162 mobile phones, 31 knives and 12 iron bars were seized from the protestors. Of these, 335 identified as ringleaders were arrested and made available to police investigators.”
In his briefing, Prosecutor Saidou lamented: “These people, who are supposed to be here for protection, behave in this way to the point of committing serious violations of the criminal law, including unarmed gathering on public roads, rebellion, wilful destruction of personal property and public buildings, and arson of dwelling places.
“Therefore, despite their very high number, and in view of the seriousness of the facts alleged against them, we have decided to prosecute them for their accountability. Given that they are foreigners, notices of prosecution will be notified to the relevant authorities.”
'Unspeakable act of vandalism'
Alexandra Morelli, UNHCR representative in Niger said she "felt betrayed..." after visiting Agadez this morning.
Answering questions by Ancet Karim of Aïr Info: Morelli said: "I am here in Agadez to show my solidarity with the local authorities and to manage this crisis together. To deeply understand the nature and to ensure that we continue to protect and provide assistance to victims, even among the Sudanese, from this unspeakable act of vandalism."
"After the burning of the humanitarian site, my reaction is that of a woman, a mother who believed in her children, who did everything with the government of Niger to guarantee them a space of peace and protection. I felt betrayed. This is the first human emotion I had; an emotion of pain.
"But today, we put emotions aside and work with pragmatism and lucidity guided by the solidarity and law of Niger."
The UNHCR is calling on the Niger authorities for "a thorough investigation to establish the facts and the causes of fire," stressing that "people responsible for criminal offences should be accountable in front of a court of law.
Speaking to Radio Dabanga from Geneva today, UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch said: “The deplorable incident of January 4 resulted in the destruction of some 300 shelters in the humanitarian centre in Agadez.
“The centre accommodates 1,200 asylum-seekers. One asylum-seeker is reported to have been injured in the fire and is receiving treatment in the local hospital.
“UNHCR through its partners continues to provide food and other basic services to those present at the humanitarian centre and is looking for urgent solutions to the damaged structures.”
Baloch stressed: “UNHCR condemns all acts of violence. We urge for restraint and call upon protestors to engage in a meaningful dialogue and search for peaceful solutions.”
‘Relocation to Europe’
Three weeks ago, thousands of refugees left the refugee camp in Agadez in protest against the failure to complete their resettlement procedures and the deteriorating conditions in the camp.
An article by independent journalist Sara Creta published by Al Jazeera today, highlights that according to the UNHCR, these people were demanding relocation to Europe. According to witnesses, the security guards tried to disperse protesters on Saturday by shooting in the air. However, more force was applied and injuries were reported in the ensuing violence after the refugees and migrants refused.
Video footage (warning: graphic images may upset sensitive viewers) showed a man thrown off the roof of a building. The video was filmed by a Sudanese refugee who was loaded on a truck.
Following their arrival back at the camp, about 15km outside Agadez, security forces fired tear gas to disperse crowds. A camp official said violence escalated again as people protested. UNHCR officials said the asylum seekers then set fire to the facility and a photographer on site said 290 out of the 331 shelters were gutted.
“It was very violent; they were beating people up. We have many injured here with us”, Daoud, a refugee from Darfur, told Creta by phone.
According to Creta’s report, sources told Al Jazeera that the government is considering shutting down the camp.
One of the refugees at the camp told Al Jazeera that many asylum seekers had been waiting at the camp, located in a desert where temperatures often reached 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in the summer, for more than two years without any clear update on their status.
The group protesting outside the UNHCR office travelled to the city on foot to submit a letter detailing deteriorating conditions at the camp.
Alessadra Morelli, UNHCR representative in Niger, said she is meeting the local governor to express solidarity and find a solution for the victims of this “tragic and absurd situation”.
“We are discussing with all humanitarian actors to find a permanent solution,” Agadez mayor Maman Boukari said on Tuesday.
Following the crackdown on protesters, Daoud said he realised “abandonment and lack of hope prevailed with the camp almost completely burned” after he was brought back.
“For two days now, we are left in the middle of the desert without any assistance, only water. The camp has been burned,” another refugee told Al Jazeera by phone.
According to an aid worker in Agadez, dire conditions in the camp and slow asylum procedures have resulted in people leaving the city for Libya or Algeria or searching for other alternatives. Last year, hundreds left, including those who decided to return to Sudan.
“I’m not surprised that people are thinking of returning to Libya. Many have also left in the past and that includes unaccompanied minors,’’ the aid worker added.
An aid worker in Agadez said 1,200 people remained for months at the camp, frustrated at UNHCR’s handling of the situation. About 400 are still there.
According to UNHCR’s Morelli, in September 2018, after long discussions involving local authorities, the Regional Directorate for Civil Status, Refugees and Migration started to process asylum claims.
To date, 184 refugee cards have been distributed. All the asylum-seekers are registered under UNHCR and can benefit from temporary protection in Niger.
In 2015, Niger adopted an asylum law and signed an agreement with UNHCR to host refugees and migrants from Libya as part of the Emergency Transit Mechanism project.
Agadez has been at the crossroads for trade and transit of migrants northwards to Libya, Algeria and the Mediterranean.
The Sudanese refugees in Niger have been a topic in the peace talks in Juba during the past weeks.
Last year, Niger’s authorities sent Sudanese refugees back to Libya, the country they fled from to Niger.
(Sources: RD / Sara Creta - Al Jazeera)