It's not the waiting that is destroying Hafiz Abdalla, although existing in the strange limbo between asylum seeker and German resident is constantly disorienting. It is how no one seems aware of the violence in Sudan, the lack of news coverage of the war, and his inability to communicate in German. It's a collection of things that gain weight the way an object seems to when sinking.
At the age of 33, Abdalla thought he would have work as an accountant, start a family, buy a house. A regular life. Instead, Abdalla finds himself a political activist in Hannover, Germany, where he is one of several organizers of a protest camp raising the issue of the treatment of Sudanese refugees and questioning Germany's diplomacy towards the country's government. The camp was created in May 2014. Abdalla filed for asylum in June 2014, well before Europe's current refugee crisis, but he has yet to receive an answer.
"After two years, you lose your compass," he said. Abdalla cannot obtain a work permit. He lives in a small apartment he shares with four other men and receives 360 euros ($400) a month from the government, 150 of which he sends to family in Sudan. Recently the German government announced a change in policy to allow Syrian, Iranian, Iraqi, and Eritrean refugees to start German language and integration classes while they wait for a decision on their asylum claims — Sudanese and all other nationalities were excluded.
As huge numbers of people continue to arrive in Europe seeking refuge, countries such as Germany are prioritizing the asylum applications for certain nationalities. Germany's accelerated procedure focuses on applicants where they expect a quick decision, such as Syrians and Eritreans who normally receive refugee status, as well as those from the western Balkans who are typically rejected. Refugees from Sudan end up somewhere in the middle; their applications are not prioritized and they require a full procedure, including an interview and detailed examination of whether their claim is credible. Only about 30 percent are given asylum.
Hafiz Abdalla sits in the Sudanese protest camp. Photo by Elie Gardner
In 2015, Sudan was the fifth highest refugee producing country in the world with 634,612 refugees and 2.3 million people internally displaced. Although the war in Sudan was once a prominent discussion topic among the international community, it has mostly faded from public consciousness. For the past two years, there has been little mainstream media coverage of what human rights experts say is a deteriorating humanitarian situation as violence and repression escalate. War continues in Darfur — where the violence is now compared to 2004 levels — and in Kordofan and the Blue Nile.
In mid-January, the Sudanese government began a new offensive in Darfur's Jebel Marra region; the government's bombings have displaced an estimated 45,000 people. The majority have fled into mountain caves, while others have reached refugee camps in Darfur and a few hundred have escaped to refugee camps in Rwanda.
Omar Hassan al Bashir's government remains accused of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
"The situation in Darfur has disappeared from the map of the world, but it is still there, and it hasn't been resolved," said Ahmed Elzobier, Amnesty International's Sudan researcher based in Nairobi. "There's a continuum of oppression in Sudan — from killing you in a conflict zone to repressing your right to freedom of expression, assembly, and association."
Despite a pending arrest warrant for Bashir from the International Criminal Court, some European countries — including Germany — are engaging with the administration. The German embassy in Khartoum website says "German-Sudanese bilateral relations have been good since Sudan's independence in 1956." The German Foreign Ministry has indicated accelerated economic cooperation between the two countries, and in January Berlin hosted informal talks between the government and the rebel movement Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North.
The protest camp in Hannover sits behind the city's main train station. The location is intentional — the founders wanted everyone to see it. Abdalla and others regularly organize actions — on November 19 they entered the Sudanese embassy in Berlin to protest the ongoing atrocities in Sudan and Germany's lack of response. The camp's demands include that all Sudanese refugees in Germany are granted asylum given they have fled war, that the Sudanese embassy be closed and that Bashir be extradited to stand trial at ICC.
The Sudanese protest camp in Hannover sits behind the city's main train station. Photo by Elie Gardner
During the day, Sudanese stop by the camp for tea and to talk; they trade legal advice, transport and housing tips. At night, up to seven men who are either homeless or visiting Hannover sleep inside the tents. The police patrol the camp several times a day, asking to see each person's ID card and writing down ID numbers. (When VICE News asked one of them what he was doing, he replied, "My job.")
Another Sudanese asylum seekers, 45-year-old Sulieman Omran, was walking home one night along an unlit street when a police car drove by. The police pulled over and demanded he submit to a breathalyzer; when he passed, they laughed at him and roared away. Another time, he says a random passer-by spit on him and said, "You black people, what are you doing here?"
Last summer, Germany briefly waived EU regulation stating that refugees have to seek asylum in the first EU country they enter — but it only waived them for Syrians. A number of Sudanese refugees (as is the case for the majority of those arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean) are first fingerprinted or receive asylum in Italy, but leave because they are unable to make a living. Those seeking solace in Germany have found none: most have been ordered to leave or forcibly deported. Others have received temporary residence permits; they live their lives in measured three or six month increments.
When asked by VICE News why the success rate of Sudanese asylum claims in Germany was significantly lower than that of other European countries, a spokesperson from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees said: "It is not possible to say why somebody is being rejected. Each asylum process is an individual process which is examined individually." The average wait time for a decision for a Sudanese asylum seeker was almost nine months, compared to an average wait time of about five months across all nationalities, she said.
Sulieman is one of the Sudanese applicants living in limbo, as is Adam Ahmed, 31, who left Venice, Italy after being almost beaten to death by a group of Italian men. One moment he was walking down the street; the next he says he was brutally assaulted. He doesn't know if the attack was racially motivated; but all the men were white. Ahmed woke up in a hospital, where he had lost vision in one eye. He spent 21 days there; when he was released he still felt a tight band of pain encircling his head. Things came in and out of focus.
Terrified, Ahmed fled to Germany carrying his medical file. In Hannover, he asked for asylum; two days later he received a deportation order. A local church took him in and provided legal assistance; now Adam has a six-month residency permit. Adam is from western Darfur; his surviving family, a mother and ten brothers, live in a refugee camp in Sudan: all he wants is to make enough money to support them. Ahmed says compared to what he's seen in Italy, life in Germany is an improvement. "Always I compare myself to the people still suffering in Sudan, who've lost part of their bodies, who are subject every day to killings," he told VICE News.
Khadija Noor also received asylum in Italy, but left after increasingly feeling life was slipping away from her. For almost two years she lived on a farm with her three young children and had little contact with others. She could not converse with the Italian social workers, who she was increasingly fearful of after a Sudanese friend had her children removed. "They claimed she was crazy," said Noor. "We carried our children all the way from Sudan. How can they say we can't now bring up our children?"
Noor now lives on the outskirts of Hannover; her children are ages 11, 7, and 4. Noor is from northern Darfur; she first fled in mid-2000 when the Janjaweed militia set fire to her village; some of her family members burned to death. Burn scars coat her hands and wrists in corrugated patterns. With her husband, she walked to a refugee camp in Chad and then eventually traveled to Libya. In 2010, her husband returned to Darfur to visit his mother, who was ill. While he was there government militia murdered him, says Noor.
Khadija Noor fled Darfur in mid-2000 when the Janjaweed militia set fire to her village. Photo by Elie Gardner
Noor received her deportation order six months after arriving in Germany; she is awaiting a decision on her appeal. Here her social worker speaks Arabic; together they review the children's progress in school and arrange doctor appointments. After school, Noor brings her children to the camp, where they can play football while she relaxes. Noor thinks it is possible to have a real life in Germany, if she is allowed to stay.
Although only a small number of Sudanese seek asylum in Europe, the recognition rates vary, from 20 percent in France to 80 percent in the UK. In Germany the rate in 2015 was around 30 percent. Compared to refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Eritrea, where the recognition rates in Europe are generally between 90 and 99 percent, the lower recognition rates reveal some European countries do not consider Sudan a country where most people have a genuine need for protection. In addition, currently, about half of the Sudanese who receive protection in Germany do so on the basis of subsidiary protection — a different legal status from that of refugee, and one that places severe limits on the right to family reunification.
Sudanese asylum-seekers who are not recognized as refugees find themselves at risk of forced return to Sudan. In October, Norway deported seven Sudanese men. In late December, the Jordanian government violently arrested some 800 Sudanese men, women, and children who were camped outside UNHCR's office in Amman protesting conditions and sent them back to Khartoum. Research shows returned Sudanese are monitored, detained and in some cases tortured and disappeared. "Even having claimed asylum will make them of interest to the authorities." said Maddy Crowther of Waging Peace. "When people are forcibly returned, they might be arrested, tortured, and presented with evidence on their activities abroad."
Another of the protest camp's members is Mohammed Said Mustafa, 36, from North Kortum, Darfur. Mustafa was born blind. As a child, despite little infrastructure for his education, he quickly developed a love of learning. "My first teacher was the BBC Arabic," he says laughing. Mustafa studied modern history through a special program at the University of Cairo, but when militia came to destroy his village he fled with his brother to Libya. When Mustafa left for Italy in 2011, they were separated, and Mustafa does not know what happened to him. Mustafa carries his absence like an appendage.
Mohammed Said Mustafa, 36, Darfur, has been living in Hannover for two months. Photo by Elie Gardner
Mustafa made it to Belgium before being fingerprinted. After four years in Belgium, his asylum application was denied; he was kicked out of his housing immediately. For three nights he slept on the streets; it was the lowest point in his life. Then unexpectedly strangers helped him, giving him a ride to Germany. He has now been living for two months in a home for the blind outside Hannover; the only refugee among over a hundred Germans. Sometimes he visits the Sudanese camp, "When I come here and am around my people, I forget all my problems," he says. "But I lost four years of my life in Belgium; now I want to study, to learn. Living like this is not enough for me. I'm very, very tired."
As part of an EU-African Union collaboration aiming to prevent migration from the Horn of Africa to Europe, Sudan has recently highlighted its position as a "transit country" — seemingly ignoring its own refugee crisis as it offers to help Europe stem trafficking and migration. A fact sheet issued by the UK Home Office on the Syrian resettlement program stated, "We believe that Sudan is primarily a country of transit, though there are refugees fleeing conflict in Darfur."
"The Sudanese government is great at manipulating people," said Olivia Bueno of the International Refugee Rights Initiative. "They have noticed that Europe is obsessed with migration and found a way to take advantage."
Watch the VICE News documentary: Ambushed in South Sudan:
One of the newest arrivals to pass through the Hannover camp is 17-year-old Mohammed Dahab, tall with inquisitive brown eyes. Dahab has only been in Germany for seven months, but he's picked a soccer team already — Bayern Munich. "I'm a sports man," he said shyly.
Dahab grew up surrounded by siblings and grandparents; the whole family gathered for social events and did everything collectively. The eldest of five siblings, he helped his parents with tending the family's cattle and sheep after school. He planned to be a doctor.
Sometimes, he heard about relatives dying. He did not think anything of it, until 2010 when he started to become aware that reality was not as he thought it was. It was like pulling a curtain back from a window; one day, everything was normal, and the next he realized his family was living in a war zone. His family was Zaghawa, a group Human Rights Watch says has been singled out for attack by government-linked militia.
In late 2012, Dahab was on his way to the well to fetch water when soldiers attacked and looted his village. He ran to nearby woods, falling and dislocating part of his foot. He hid in the woods for two days, subsisting only on water, too afraid to look for food. When he reunited with his family and they returned to the village, everything was destroyed. They headed for Zam Zam refugee camp. There, there was no security after dark. Dahab was given a refugee ID card, but traveling outside the camp with the card was dangerous —government officials would arrest you for having one. Two years after the attack, Dahab's father was out tending to some cattle when militia came and demanded he give up the cattle; when he resisted, they killed him.
As the oldest son, Dahab felt responsible to try and find a way to provide for his family. He was also terrified of being arrested one day outside the camp or shot like his father. Dahab decided to travel with smugglers across the Sahara.
In Libya, he tried to find work as a laborer, but was exploited — after working one day he was beaten when he asked for pay. The Sudanese community in Tripoli sheltered him, and one man gave Dahab $600 to travel onwards to Italy.
Dahab arrived in Sicily and was lost; no one had advised him on what to do next. He spotted some Eritrean boys he'd met on the boat and he followed them; they led him out of Italy and into Germany. Now he's in a home for teenagers, where some of the other residents say racist things to him.
Dahab tells himself to be patient, to let the words fall away. He has a German girlfriend, and with her he feels at ease. But he doesn't talk to her about his past, or his family, who he thinks about constantly, who he wants to send money to, but cannot because he is in school and Germany considers him a child. When asked about his mother, he weeps.
Dahab will turn 18 this month. He doesn't know what will happen to him then.