A Syrian refugee in Uruguay doused himself in gasoline in protest when told Uruguay could not strong-arm other countries into giving his family a visa, and later attacked both government and UN officials, ending the meeting.
The man, identified by Argentine news outlet Infobae as Merhi Alshebli, had demanded a meeting with government officials to negotiate a way to leave the country. According to the Secretariat of Human Rights of Uruguay in a press release, the man, whom they did not identify, “attacked members of the [Syrian Refugee] Program three hours into the exchange,” following the news that “the Uruguayan state is not qualified to issue entry visas to another country (a right held by the country in question).” The meeting was held at the behest of the Syrian family in question, which has been pressuring Uruguay to give them visas to leave the country.
The descriptions of the incident in Uruguayan media are far more colorful. El Observador reports that, according to Human Rights Secretary Javier Miranda, the man had “doused himself in gasoline as a form of protest” during the meeting. Miranda denied that the man attacked any of the officials present at the meeting. “There were no punches,” he claimed. Fernando Gil, a spokesman for Uruguay’s Ministry of the Interior, told the AP that “the man doused himself in gasoline to pressure us, but it didn’t get worse from there and he is calmer now.”
Infobae claims Miranda told reporters that the “situation got out of control, there was aggression, and the team left to file charges.” It cites sources calling the meeting “a super-violent situation in which objects flew in the air,” but no one was injured.
Uruguay began to accept families seeking to leave the violence of the Syrian Civil War behind under the tenure of leftist former President José Mujica, as well as accepting a number of former detainees from the American military facility at Guantánamo Bay, physically part of the island of Cuba but never politically a part of the Cuban state. In February 2015, following a string of domestic violence charges, Uruguay announced it would not longer take male Syrian refugees, citing “cultural” differences. A month later, Uruguay halted the program entirely.
Uruguay restarted the Syrian refugee program in July, following international pressure on the part of the United Nations and local Middle Eastern governments for the rest of the world to take in more refugees and diminish the pressure on neighboring states like Turkey and Greece. By September, the families accepted began staging sit-ins in the capital of Montevideo, demanding to leave. “They told us this country was cheap, and it’s expensive. Money is not enough. There’s no work,” one man, identified as Ibrahim Ashebli, told reporters then.
The former Guantánamo Bay prisoners have also repeatedly protested that the government has not provided them enough funding. In April, the men staged a protest outside the American embassy in Montevideo, arguing that the year of free rent the Uruguayan government was providing was not enough. This week, a Syrian former Guantánamo Bay detainee, Abu Dhiab, warned Syrians to avoid Uruguay at all costs, while demanding a “large and furnished” house for himself, threatening a new protest if he did not receive it.