When does a refugee camp become a permanent home?

Encamped refugees are often portrayed on our TV screens as objects of pity with deadpan expressions. Time to ask what they think and feel.

Rebecca Tinsley
20 May 2015

Love in a hard place: on St Valentine’s evening 2013, the families of Aya and Mohammed gathered in a tiny building in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, housing an estimated 90,000 refugees who fled Syria, and agreed on their engagement. Flickr / Oxfam International. Some rights reserved.

Across the globe 10m people are living in refugee camps. Many, like the Syrians in Jordan and Turkey, arrived recently. Others, like the Palestinians in Lebanon or Burma’s ethnic minorities in Thailand, have been there for decades.

At what stage do people realise their port-in-a-storm might be permanent? What does it mean reluctantly to accept you are unlikely ever to see your home again? What happens to the established social order when the hiatus becomes the new ‘normal’? And when does surviving give way to starting over?

Darfur’s forgotten

Among the world’s most forgotten refugees are those from Darfur, who began their exodus to next-door Chad 12 years ago. According to the UN, 355,330 live in more than a dozen refugee camps dotted along the border with Sudan. Eastern Chad is arid, poor, and remote; the local people have little to share with newcomers.

Darfur started as a short-term humanitarian emergency in 2003. The Sudanese regime and its proxy militias however continue the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of its non-Arab citizens, using aerial bombardment, systematic rape, looting and intimidation. Although media attention has moved on, the violence is back to its former savagery, causing hundreds of thousands more to abandon their homes. The Khartoum regime says it will defeat its enemies (the non-Arabs and non-Muslims whom it labels terrorists) by the end of 2015. Consequently people are still in what psychologists call survival mode, unwilling to settle down to a new life in Chad.   

“Whilst the political and military problems continue to persist in Sudan the prospect of the refugees returning home in the foreseeable future is unlikely,” said Jan Schutte of the Lutheran World Federation Chad. “LWF assists host communities and refugee populations with the implementation of sustainable livelihoods projects like Seeds for Solution. Last year this project, supported by UNHCR, helped more than 250 producers’ groups, consisting of both refugee and host populations, with the production, processing and storage of harvests.”

Schutte admitted the main challenges remained access to agricultural land, as well as funding this work as the world looked elsewhere. Another aid worker who declined to be identified said it had been hard to persuade locals to allocate scarce resources to the refugees.

Darfuri women risk rape when they venture beyond the perimeter to collect firewood, and charity staff live in fear of bandits along the routes between the camps. Armed escorts are necessary and even within the camps vehicles are left with the police, while the aid workers go about their business. The Chadian government is not much in evidence to guarantee security, since a 2008 peace deal with Sudan neutralised the threat to the regime from local rebels.

When Sam Totten of the University of Arkansas visited the camps in 2010 he predicted devastating social breakdown should Darfuris, used to living on farms, be forced into prolonged proximity with strangers. He feared abandonment of the old and the mentally and physically disabled, of girls raped by Sudanese militia and unaccompanied children or offspring of earlier marriages. According to representatives of international aid agencies, all this has come to pass.

Darfuri society is conservative and Muslim, assigning women low status. The social disruption means fathers are even less involved in parenting. ‘God will provide for them’ is a phrase commonly heard, placing a greater burden on their women.

Alcoholism, domestic violence and rape also take their toll in the camps. Moreover, respect for elders has crumbled as young men witness the helplessness of their ethnic groups, whiling away the years in exile.

International charities encourage camp elders and imams to condemn gender-based violence. According to one aid worker who insisted on anonymity, “We put men on the camp committees, telling them how important it is that they show leadership, but the men respond, ‘No one ever said this was wrong until we got here.’”

Although media attention has moved on, the violence is back to its former savagery, causing hundreds of thousands more to abandon their homes.

The more traditional the rural people are, the less they are willing to alter their lifestyle, it seems. “Having lived for centuries in the same manner in a remote part of the world, they are confronted by aspects of modern life that challenge them to change their ways,” commented an aid worker who also declined to be identified. “They don’t see why they should adapt.”

To the frustration of the aid agencies, there is little interest among the refugees in schooling. Moreover, they are unwilling to learn French—the common language in Chad—because they assume they are going home to herd their livestock. According to another anonymous aid worker, “They especially dislike it when the Kenyan humanitarian staff dispute their claim that education is ‘not the African way’ or ‘not the Muslim way’. The Kenyans make a point of saying the best schools in Kenya are the Muslim ones.”

In some respects it suits the aid agencies if refugees are passive and thus easy to manage. But at the same time they urge the camp inhabitants to embrace empowerment through education, women’s rights and livelihood projects.

Loss of skills

Dr Barbara Bauer, a psychologist with my NGO, Network for Africa, does trauma-therapy training in northern Uganda, where people lived in camps for more than 20 years. There she has observed the loss of problem-solving skills or the ability to take responsibility. While they are in survival mode refugees are unlikely to plan for the future, giving rise to challenges when the conflict ends. In other words, the factors stopping the Darfuris in Chad from starting over are hardly unique.

In her book The Spirit of Peace, the theologian Mary Grey describes the burden on Palestinian women in the camps in Gaza, holding their families together while facing many tedious hours each day collecting water from communal taps and scrubbing their shelters to keep the sand at bay. She pays tribute to what the Palestinians call sumud, or steadfastness, resilience or stoicism—and in the case of the medical staff to their heroism.

Aziz Abu Sarah of George Mason University believes the worst thing about refugee camps is there is no way to be productive: “Just like prison, you receive your daily portion of food and water, and are asked to wait hopelessly, passively.” An aid worker in the Bosnian camps in Slovenia in the 1990s recalled that the people who adapted best were Roma “used to making the most of having very little, and coping in the face of adversity and prejudice”.

In 2007 Waging Peace collected 500 drawings by Darfuri children in the camps illustrating their experiences: Sudanese soldiers killing and raping as they rampaged through the children’s home villages; girls led away in chains, never to be seen again; babies thrown on fires; possessions and livestock looted; towns incinerated. The drawings were accepted as evidence of the context of war crimes by the International Criminal Court and they were exhibited around the world, sometimes alongside the children’s pictures from the Theresienstadt/Terezin Nazi death camp (20).

The good news is that the children no longer draw such disturbing images, preferring to reproduce what they saw recently on TV. Nevertheless, it is hard to be optimistic about their future.

The obvious answer is for diplomatic pressure to be applied to the Sudanese regime, so it stops abusing its own citizens. Unfortunately the international community has other priorities, giving its attention to more headline-grabbing conflicts. Evidently an inability to show flexibility in solving problems and behaving rationally is not confined to refugee camps.

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