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Urban Refugees: Hidden in Plain Sight
Monday, March 01, 2010

Andrew, a Rwandese refugee who came to Kenya in 1997, creates cards to be sold in the Mikono Gift Shop in Nairobi. Andrew produces about 1000 cards per month, “each card is like handwriting” in it's uniqueness, he says. His wife stitches bags and placemats using different fabrics. The family – they have four children, one of them is disabled and receives special needs education in Nairobi – lives in the western part of Nairobi in a small flat. (Angela Hellmuth for JRS)
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From the beginning, Jesuit Refugee Service has made it a priority to work with “forgotten” refugees – those living in the shadows – whose plight is overlooked by others.

It may seem strange that many of these marginalized refugees live not in remote border camps but right under our eyes in city settings. Barely tolerated, often homeless or living in shantytowns of cardboard and tin, these urban refugees live a truly hand to mouth existence. Despite neglect and intolerance, the number of urban refugees is only increasing. A new UN policy affirming the rights of refugees to live where they choose, and the obligation of states to protect them now offers new hope.

In this issue of The Refugee Voice, we explore the plight of urban refugees and how JRS is trying to help.
~ Fr. Ken Gavin, S.J.

Jesuit Refugee Service and Urban Refugees

Jesuit Refugee Service, one of the few organizations to assist refugees in urban settings worldwide, has long recognized the severe state of neglect of urban refugees, and has tried to address these needs. Through advocacy to UNHCR and local authorities, direct assistance with food, housing and medical expenses, education, livelihood projects, and counseling and referral services, JRS addresses the broad spectrum of needs of urban refugees.

In many countries hosting large displaced populations, refugees are tolerated only if they consent to live in camps designated by the government. These may be open camps, which refugees can come and go more or less freely, or closed camps, where refugees are confined by physical or legal barriers.

Camp life can be harsh, characterized by poor standards of housing, sanitation, lack of adequate food, water, medical facilities, a lack of security and, perhaps worst of all, enforced idleness and dependency. Refugees who chose not to live in camps or who fear to do so may be treated like escaped prisoners: subject to arrest, detention, forced return or even deportation. Even under more lenient regimes, refugees who do not live in camps are usually at best ignored, and are subject to neglect and exploitation. In those refugee hosting countries that have not established refugee camps, refugees typically subsist on the margins of society: tolerated, perhaps, as a source of cheap labor, but lacking access to legal status, legal employment, medical care, education and social services.

For many years, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – the organization responsible for ensuring the protection of refugees – and international donors and aid agencies to a large degree accepted encampment as a necessary, temporary expedient, feeling that this was a price that had to be paid in order for governments to permit refugees to stay on their soil, and also feeling that the job of housing, feeding, and protecting large populations could best be achieved in an ordered and contained camp environment. In accordance with this view, refugee aid programs have often been limited to camps or to rural border areas where refugees reside in camp-like settings. As time has passed, however, and the hoped-for durable solutions of return home, integration into local communities, and resettlement have in many instances proved unattainable, temporary camps have become permanent homes to generations of increasingly despondent people. Funding to support refugee camps has also become harder and harder to maintain, and the resulting deterioration of facilities, cuts in already meager food rations, and overcrowding have led to a host of social ills.

In the meantime, the number of refugees living in urban settings has grown, with the majority of refugees finding it necessary to make their own way in towns and cities. Increasingly, there has been a trend for refugees to leave camps or to bypass them entirely, seeking instead to settle in communities where they hope to find jobs to support themselves and their families. Indeed some of the largest recent refugee flows – such as the flight of refugees from Iraq – have been almost entirely to cities. This trend has led to a re-evaluation of refugee needs by the international community, as reflected in the new urban refugee policy recently published by UNHCR. The policy re-asserts the principle enshrined in international treaty law that refugees have the right to freedom of movement and are entitled to protection and assistance wherever they live.

A Twilight Existence

One of the greatest barriers to improving care to urban refugees is their invisibility. Because they are so often barred from legal employment, urban refugees live in the poorest neighborhoods, distant from city services. Festus, an asylum seeker in Kampala, Uganda, is typical. He begins his search for employment each day at 5:00 a.m., walking six miles to the downtown market, where on a good day he may earn between fifty cents and a dollar. Later in the day, he spends long hours waiting in lines seeking to move his refugee claim forward. Many other refugees are afraid even to ask for help, knowing that risking the attention of the authorities could get them thrown into a jail or detention facility with the prospect of either lengthy incarceration under appalling conditions or summary deportation. For these refugees the quiet assistance provided by JRS can be a lifeline.

Even for refugees not afraid to seek help, a lack of legal documentation often means exclusion from services. In the Dominican Republic, for example, the children of Haitian refugees are denied citizenship. As stateless persons, they do not have access to schools. Even where urban refugee children do have access to schools, school fees and required uniforms often put education out of reach.

In many countries, the lack of work authorization papers limits refugees to work in the "informal sector," surviving on odd jobs, and often undertaking dangerous and physically demanding work for little pay. Refugee workers are commonly exploited, and their lack of legal status means it is impossible to seek redress. George, a refugee in Johannesburg explains:

"I was a teacher before, and I came here and tried to be a teacher. Nobody would hire me. They undervalue our certificates, even when we have them…when they do hire us, they will not pay. You’ll work for three months and they refuse to pay you. And there is nowhere you can go. There is nothing you can do. I cannot hope anymore."

A Helping Hand in a Time of Darkness

Especially for rural refugees moving directly from the terror of flight to the challenges of an urban existence, the experience of being a stranger in a strange land can be extremely difficult. In these cases, the JRS principle of "accompaniment," offering a shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen, can be critical

A 20-year-old Sudanese woman named Comfort, who fled to Uganda after her family was killed when raiders burned their farm in the night, came to JRS with severe physical injuries and mental trauma. In halting English, she explains:

"If I didn’t get to JRS, I don’t know how my life is going to be. I would be like in the street. I really don’t know. I think I could have lost my life…since I came here to Agape [a JRS program in Kampala, Uganda], I didn’t hear any bad words from you … You gave me advice, whereby sometimes I used to think a lot, even sometimes I think to kill myself, alone inside, but then you come to speak to me ...I am very happy for you to give me advice like that. Otherwise I don’t know how is my life going to be: everytime crying inside."

The burden of daily survival combined with social isolation refugees experience in unfamiliar cities often leads to a sense of desperation. Outreach, counseling and social support, is a key element of JRS programs. 

In addition to providing individual care, in cities such as Addis Ababa JRS has established community centers where refugees can gather. Frequented by more than 500 people, the center in Addis is a safe place where children can play and adults can socialize, take language vocational or computer classes, send email and use the library. 

"We give people temporary respite so that they may recover and regain their coping skills," says Sr. Nora McCarthy, who runs the JRS program. “We give them time and some security so that they may set their eyes of the future."

Access to education

One of the greatest problems facing refugee families in urban areas is the lack of access to education for their children. In some cases this is due to legal barriers. In other cases, language is a barrier to learning. Many times, the cost of education is simply too high for people struggling to meet basic needs. JRS tries to help refugees to meet educational needs in many ways, through advocacy with local authorities, through payment of school fees, and by establishing classes especially for refugees, and by helping them to earn an income and become self sufficient.

"The money I gained was not sufficient to buy food and pay school fees…We only had one meal a day, which often caused fighting among the children because they were hungry. For whole nights I could not sleep and over the day I suffered from a severe headache because I kept thinking about how I could solve all the problems on my own." Claudette, a Rwandan refugee in Nairobi.

After receiving food aid and a referral to counseling through JRS, Claudette said:

"This was as great relief which I had not expected and I do not know what I would have done without. The children could have lunch again and stopped fighting for food. A little later, I was granted the opportunity to sell my crafts at the JRS Mikono Shop, which helps me to pay our rent. There is no prospect of me returning to Rwanda, but it is my great desire to make sure that my children are educated here and I hope that with the support from JRS and the work of my own hands I can make this happen."

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