16 Nov Forced Migration: a Multi-Faceted Issue
Uganda is the African country leading the figures in terms of number of refugees, and 3rd globally, with more than 1.3 million displaced people calling this country home. Refugees come from as many as 30 different countries, largely from the Democratic Republic of Congo. While growing refugee crises have come to affect the borders of developed countries across Europe and the United States and Canada, the complexity of dealing with refugee influxes are further compounded in a country that struggles to provide the basic needs for its own swelling population of citizens.
Refugee Law Project (RLP), an Eirene partner in the Great Lakes Region and an internationally renowned organization due to its research and field work with refugee populations, regularly organizes conferences on forced migration. I had the opportunity to participate in the latest of such conferences that marked the 20th anniversary of an organization that has come into its own in the field of migration and continues to go from strength to strength.
During two intensive days, numerous civil society and government stakeholders, joined by representatives from refugee communities, discussed and debated crucial issues that remain open to interpretation. To say the least, the subject is thorny. While it is impossible to succinctly summarize all that was discussed, one thing that became clear was that supporting refugees requires a holistic approach with serious consideration for the nuanced characteristics specific to these communities in need.
While many of the problems refugees face here are found among the indigenous peoples of Uganda, the uncertainty and tenuousness of their livelihood and settlement status of tomorrow adds a dynamic of difficulty and desperation that cannot be understated. Many may not know where they will spend the night or how to feed their family in the next hour. To paraphrase C. Dolan, director of RLP, each human being had the need to make plans for their future, to visualize a life beyond tomorrow. This psychological need is violently stolen from refugees, who are no longer in the position to begin visualizing a future past tomorrow, not for themselves, not for their children.
Refugees are trapped in a world of in-between and perhaps. Between potentially returning home, permanently settling in their first country the fled to or perhaps somewhere else entirely, it is difficult to say for certain, though each option poses a different set of challenges. Language, access to employment, education, and administrative processes are just the tip of the iceberg. During the conferences, some refugees have attested to a feeling of loneliness and feeling completely lost when they arrived in Uganda. If certain services were advertised as free, the reality is oftentimes to the contrary. The language barrier alone is an enormous impediment to integration.
The psychological aspect is something of immense consequence to be contended with, something which has been largely overlooked or underestimated among humanitarians working with refugees. Aside from the inherent challenges accompanying their displaced status, refugees often carry serious wounds from the past, direct consequences from the conditions that displaced them in the first place. The grave trauma that many refugees struggle with and have internalized must be addressed and attended with the utmost care, even if these traumas pose a gargantuan task.
The welcoming of refugees doesn’t exclude new problems and pressures for local populations either. When we look to the reactions of some of our compatriots at the idea of opening a centre that houses 50 people in the middle of the Swiss-German countryside, we can easily imagine the negative reactions that crop up in a country like Uganda. Though Uganda has a long history of being welcoming and an open door policy to refugees, the local populations has complained of better treatment of refugees than themselves (Adjumani, in the northern region, is comprised of over 60% refugees). These negative views are not unfounded and must be taken into consideration when implementing projects to support the integration of refugees.
While talking about access to job markets, access to healthcare or even education are deserving of rounded discussions, I will put these issues aside for now to focus on two key points. Firstly, according to UN estimates that forecast several hundreds of thousands of new climate change refugees (in my view, this is a gross underestimate of the waves of internally and externally displaced people to come – just look at India and Bangladesh and the numbers soar), it is evident that the issue of forced migration is not ready to be dealt with.
Let’s look with regards to climate refuges in particular, who represent groups of displaced peoples who simply cannot return to their countries. Their former homes can no longer guarantee them a place to live in peace and prosperity. When we see the way in which the Western world slams its doors on vulnerable people in desperation who have risked everything, even their lives, in hopes of a better life for themselves and their children, we should be worried at the real risk of blood bath on the horizon, when millions of innocent people come knocking at our doors without the possibility of going back.
Secondly, I find it disturbing that a country like Uganda, one of the poorest in the world with a plethora of development challenges, would continue to open its arms to those in need when so few countries in the Occidental West would offer the same kind of possibilities. The latest theory proposed by the Swiss government is that we must help them in their own countries so that they do not come to Switzerland. Of course, this would be the ideal solution, but it simply doesn’t mesh with man refugees’ lived realities today. Oftentimes, staying in the country is simply not an option. We need to decide whether we will continue to accept seeing people dying on the perilous journey of forced migration that has become all-to-common or whether we are ready to consider refugees as our equal and come to their immediate aid. It is not reasonable for a country like Uganda to carry the burden alone.
N.B. Canada was named 1st in the world for refugees resettled according to a UN report, with over 28,000 refugees resettled in 2018. This has not been without backlash from local populations, however, particularly in Quebec and Ontario, which are feeling the strain. In the summer of 2019, as many as 250 asylum seekers were arriving in Montreal alone on a daily basis. These are largely Haitian refugees fleeing the US.