We Are Not The Problem- But We Have Problems

First Hand Blog Post

Although the language of ‘participation’ appears in many documents of humanitarian agencies, in practice refugee agency is often denied as its acknowledgement challenges the needs-based approach that dominates the aid system. Escalating numbers of refugees in the past two decades have entrenched an approach that awards the most ‘deserving’. As a consequence, refugees are forced to compete for assistance and resettlement places according to vulnerability criteria. Those who advocate for their rights risk being overlooked.

An emerging critique in the field of refugee studies challenges the manner in which refugees are regarded and represented as passive victims. First Hand seeks to contribute to this debate by publishing works from those who have experienced displacement that tell a different story – in the hope that we can learn how to progress a system that fosters resilience and choice over passive dependency.

This month we present our first blog post, written by Kulihoshi Musikami Luc Pecos. The author raises awareness for the ‘aid mentality’ that still influences many relief operations and advocates for recognising the rights and strengths of refugees. We hope that his perspective will generate debate and would like to encourage any interested reader to submit their balanced responses to oxmofm@gmail.com.


We Are Not The Problem – But We Have Problems

Kulihoshi Musikami Luc Pecos

“We cannot do all this unless there is a shift in thinking from refugee flows as temporary movement to seeing them as a permanent movement. The remedy to refugee problems is not to double aid but to adopt a universal human rights approach.”

After the Second World War people believed that there would be a general peace in the world which would put an end to displacement. This idea is reflected in the documents on refugees which were adopted shortly after the Second World War. For example the 1951 Refugee Convention refers to refugee flows as temporal movements. Refugees are seen as a problem rather than people having problems. As a result some people are looking for what is called “lasting solutions to end refugee movement”. Although this approach to displacement is relatively new, displacement itself is not a new phenomenon. Historically people have been displaced and have moved on to start new lives. It is the current approach of viewing refugees as temporary victims that needs to be re-considered: displacement should be understood as a permanent fact of life.

As long as we are considered a temporal phenomenon by both UNHCR and governments, we will be unable to think ahead because we know that we are supposed to be leaving any time. 2009 when Rwandan refugees in Uganda were forced to repatriate and all their properties were looted is fresh in our memories.

The tendency to see refugees as a problem and try to address the causes for their displacement, however, is counterproductive. For example, refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo who have been in Uganda since 1964 and who are living in extreme poverty and destitution are expected to go back to develop their country. Yet because refugees are seen as only staying temporarily, little has been invested in developing their skills and providing education. How can someone who has not been at school since 1964 develop his country of origin?

In many countries refugees are considered either a source of instability or an economic problem. This attitude is the major cause of refugee rights violations in both developed and poor countries. Refugees are considered a “burden” and those who welcome them may not be doing it as part of their natural obligations but as a humanitarian gesture. I strongly believe that the assistance to refugees should not be looked at as gesture of good will out of mercy but as an international obligation.

Instead of giving refugees the opportunity to look for their own ways of living (here in Uganda giving the refugee farmers in camps the opportunity to sell their products outside the camps) and earning their basic needs, many are busy discussing how to double international aid. The problem is that much of this aid does not reach us and many refugees are forced to live in camps to access aid. For example, many of the funds the UNHCR collects are not accessible to us. Here in Uganda refugees are still forced to go to camp on the pretext that they will get aid from there. Yet linking access to aid to someone’s willingness to stay in a camp is a violation to fundamental human rights standards.

Once in the camps, it is difficult to access the promised aid. In a yet unpublished research conducted in Kampala from 20/04/2011 to 11/05/2011 about the aid provided to refugees, 101 responded to the question “Do you get assistance?” Only17 respondents said they received assistance; 5 of those got their assistance from family or friends. Of the 12 who received charitable aid, 4 mentioned UNHCR or its implementing partner Inter Aid as a source of assistance, 4 responded that they received aid from a church or mosque, and 4 said they were supported by other NGOs.[1]

In the eyes of refugees in Uganda, the real solutions for their problems are sustainable programmes to end misery and destitution, to access employment and education, to be empowered, in short to be given an opportunity to start a new life.

We cannot do all this unless there is a shift in thinking from refugee flows as temporary movement to seeing them as a permanent movement. The remedy to refugee problems is not to double aid but to adopt a universal human rights approach.  Among the tangible solutions to refugee problems is what Professor Chaloka Beyani (Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Internally Displaced Persons) calledinternational citizenship”at the opening of the IASFM conference in Kampala 2011.

To achieve this we need a change of perception and mentality through constructive discussions to give refugees an opportunity to exist and be accepted as part of humanity.

Five years ago the refugee management system in Uganda did not recognize that refugees have rights. Today it says that refugees have rights as refugees but not universal rights as a full human being and when you ask them what the rights of refugees are, they start talking about refugee obligations. This is what we are told in Uganda, that refugees are dangerous to the security of the country and the best way to handle them is to keep them in camps where they are called “vulnerable people”. Yet the mere fact of crossing the border cannot make someone vulnerable and a perpetual victim of various human rights violations cannot make them a burden. It is the failure to give refugees equal human rights that exposes them to all these risks and creates a high level of vulnerability which is in fact a man-made situation.

A way to help us to judge actions of all actors who are involved in refugee affairs would be to introduce a culture of transparency and accountability to refugees which is currently absent. It is when we can install these values in our system and allow beneficiaries themselves to control processes that we can expect positive results – rather than conducting endless studies on whether refugees are well helped. What is done for refugees, without refugees it is done against refugees.

With the advances of technology it may not be necessary to pass through complicated channels in order to deliver assistance to refugees because we can easily give it to them directly. It is when refugees are given a chance to organize themselves, to put in practice their intellectual capacities and their physical strength that we can speak about the assistance to and the well being of refugees.

In this world where every one seems to be orientated in human rights beliefs and the culture of the participation of all, those dealing with refugees still have that problem of shifting from the old doctrine to new ways of doing things. Rather than reducing refugees to mere consumers of given products or executing any given decision, they should be involved in the whole process of the decision making through local participation. Then we shall have a system where the decisions are not taken by a handful people in Geneva but by refugees themselves.

[1] The researcher wishes to remain anonymous.