This is a crisis, too: the forgotten lives of refugees in East Africa
African refugees can spend whole lifetimes in exile. Better solutions are needed.
Thousands of people risking their lives on the choppy waters of the Mediterranean, oversized lifejackets strapped to terrified children. Make-shift tents lined up at the U.S.-Mexico border, former stadiums turned emergency camps. Syrian refugees making the journey over land to Europe, sending shockwaves through the political landscape. These are the images, headlines, and subsequent political hostility that have dominated the news cycle for the past five years and that have sensationalized the “global refugee crisis,” drawing attention — both good and bad — to the plights of those seeking refuge.
These stories are visceral. And what’s happening is certainly worthy of its’ place and attention on the world stage. But it’s not the whole story.
In 2016, in the middle of the European crisis, Uganda took in more people than any other country in the world — including in Europe. There are1.3 million refugees currently living in Uganda alone. There are 1 million refugees in Sudan. There are hundreds of thousands of refugees living in Rwanda, Kenya, and Ethiopia. And that’s not including the millions more seeking asylum, or those internally displaced. Most of them are from South Sudan and Somalia, followed closely by refugees from Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. People are fleeing prolonged conflict and spikes in political instability, and more and more are displaced by drought and an increasingly unpredictable climate. Those stories, those lives, are ledes that are too often buried.
Most are living in protracted displacement. Many refugees are in camps, which vary from country to country in terms of protocols and operational restrictions, but most of which function much like warehouses— a holding pen with no easy movement in, or out.
To be sure, living in a refugee camp is a preferable alternative to the dire and violent circumstances refugees are fleeing. But it’s an imperfect system, to say the least. People live in shelters in allocated swaths of land, often the least desirable areas unwanted by the rest of a country’s population. Basic monthly food rations are distributed, things like rice and flour, but most people struggle to get enough volume or nutritional value to cover their family’s needs. Sometimes, like in the case of Uganda, small farming plots are allocated to new arrivals. Healthcare is provided by international NGOs funded by UNHCR, but they’re often basic, ill-equipped, or under funded. Economic activities like in-camp sales of products from the outside or small roadside shops are possible, if middling in their profitability. But what’s much more difficult is the pursuit of any career to speak of, the fueling of talent outside of handicrafts and farming, especially in those situations where refugee mobility is limited and work permits restricted.
Some arrive - and don’t ever leave. It’s common for children, for entire families, to be born and grow up in these camps. And once adults flee, they’ll spend between 10 years and 26 years as refugees. Nakivale Refugee Settlement in Uganda, one of the oldest, still-operating refugee camps in the region, was established in 1958. The Dadaab and Kakuma refugee complex was established in 1991. Kiziba Camp in Rwanda established in 1996. And this is barely scratching the surface. Some people have returned home. But the majority have lived there for years, unable to go back.
Refugee resettlement — so often at the center of political debate and existential fear— is simply not an option for 99% of refugees globally. Less than 1% of refugees are resettled in third party countries. Instead, they spend their lives in refugees camps or on the margins of the world’s largest cities, trying to eke out a living.
The world is facing a refugee crisis. But the reality of that crisis extends beyond the headlines and into the realities of people — many of them in East Africa — who have been refugees for far too long. And better solutions are needed.
As someone who has worked on refugee issues in the humanitarian and development space for the better part of the last decade, I’ve taken part in developing current solutions, have been witness to others, and have published research on some of the most ineffectual (and expensive) programs and their neocolonial undertones. But from Sudan to Uganda to DR Congo to Rwanda to Somalia to Mozambique and beyond, and after talking to those at the heart of the crisis, I’ve found that the unifying factor is that people feel failed by the system. They’re pining for more. They want a real future, not one stuck in a seemingly infinite limbo.
A couple of years ago, I was sitting down with community leaders in Kyangwali Refugee Settlement in Western Uganda. Near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kyangwali is perched on a hill, overlooking one of Africa’s Great Lakes, Lake Albert, which divides the two countries. In recent years Kyangwali has seen an influx of Congolese refugees who make up the majority of its 113,000 population, alongside Rwandans, Burundians, South Sudanese, Somalis, and Kenyans. Many Congolese people arrive by boat across the lake.
It had taken us an hour to drive from “base camp,” the center of the settlement, to this remote community, over muddy, dark orange roads and potholes that sent teeth clattering and arms against the seat, bracing for impact. I say that not to contribute to the roads-in-Africa-are-bad stereotype, but to highlight just how challenging traversing this place is. Kyangwali is an expansive, rural settlement — homes, plots of land, and small clusters of centralized villages are spotted throughout. It can take several hours to drive across the entire thing. If you don’t have a car, which almost no one aside from NGO staff do, walking, taking a motorcycle taxi, or biking (if you’re lucky) are your only options.
This particular meeting, we were talking about water — this area’s biggest challenges, where they currently source water, and how they used the limited supply of camp-provided water. Because despite the efforts of humanitarian agencies to supply the necessary amount of water to the entire Kyangwali population, so far those efforts hadn’t effectively reached this remote area of the settlement. The water that was trucked in a few times a week simply wasn’t enough, and on top of that, these hulking and unwieldy trucks often couldn’t make it up and through those narrow and slippery roads. This community, newly arrived from Congo, was cut off from the already basic and stretched infrastructure of the settlement.
As a result, people, and especially kids, were getting sick. The only available natural water source was over a mile away, a stream at the bottom of a steep, crumbling valley. To collect water, mothers and children (who are mainly responsible for fetching water) would scramble up and down the cliffside, hoisting their filled and heavy jerrycans back up the crumbling hill. That, and it left these women and children vulnerable, alone along the journey. But what made it most dangerous was that the water they were managing to gather simply wasn’t clean. It wasn’t drinkable. But without any other options, people were drinking it anyways.
After we sat down to talk the people gathered led myself and the rest of the team to the site of the water source. They wanted their point to hit home, I think. I found myself in lockstep next to young man in his 20s, who seemed to see our trek as a small adventure, a break in the hum drum daily routine, giving these foreigners a small window into his world. I pulled a colleague over to translate before I asked him a bit about himself — how long he’d been here, and where he was hoping to go.
He glanced over at me, a pause before responding. He’d been in Kyangwali for about six months. But, he said, “there’s nothing for me here. Where do I go? Nowhere. I’m here.”
This young man was six months into life at Kyangwali with no end clearly in sight. No path forward. Disconnected not only from his country, his home, and his family in Congo, he was disconnected from any sort of adequate support system in Kyangwali, too. He was facing days filled without clear purpose or direction.
Uganda is known for being one of the best places to be a refugee, largely owing to their open-door policy and land allocation for refugees. One of the best. And still, people like this young man and this community are struggling to survive. And not only that, to find meaning and purpose, an oppressive, soul-crushing ennui that settles in quickly. “There’s nothing for me here.”
For certain, programs, UNHCR-funded and otherwise, are well-meaning, and some are working. Individual lives have been changed for the better because of them. But on the whole, the numbers have remained unmovable. And in some cases, growing.
Something is broken. So who’s going to fix it?
The refugee crisis in East Africa is based in centuries old extractive and exploitative political institutions that have left everyday people in deep poverty, caused ripples of instability, and led to cyclic upheavals of violence. While incremental change is possible, leaders and the economic elite lack adequate incentives to undertake an overhaul of their country’s institutions that might, eventually, contribute to a more even distribution of wealth, opportunity, stability, and resources for those looking to return — or stay.
Alongside Uganda, some host countries are seeking solutions. Rwanda, for example, has a policy of progressive integration, allowing refugees to participate in the mainstream economy and offering pathways to naturalization. The country has become known in the region for it’s support to refugees, recently offering sanctuary to hundreds of Eritrean refugees from Libya.
What about humanitarian investment? According to UNHCR, last year funds allocated toward refugee relief in the Horn of Africa totaled $1,682,446,598, making it seemingly difficult to argue that what’s needed most is more money thrown at the problem. But there are 14.1 million UNHCR-identified “people of concern” in the region (a category that includes refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people, and returned refugees). That’s $119/person of UNHCR support for all of 2019, but that number also includes the funding required to keep refugee camps and UNHCR infrastructure — water, shelter, healthcare, community services, staff , case processing — running. Framed this way, it’s fair to question whether lack of financial investment is a big part of the problem.
It’s clear that institutions both governmental or otherwise have not adequately addressed the crisis according to the scale it requires. Or at least not yet.
There are reasons to be hopeful. Organizations like Samasource, which links global tech giants to refugee and at-risk communities, and GriffinWorx, which equips refugee businesses with world-class training, hone in on 21st century and career-driven job skills instead of traditional livelihoods programs like handicrafts and farming. Because learning how to sew baskets might earn you a $10 a week. Learning world-class coding might get you a job in the capital city (permits permitting). Since its founding in 2008, Samasource has provided job training and work to 51,611 people. Kiva, a lending organization, is building in-camp economies. To date, they’ve distributed $1.4 billion in loans to entrepreneurs globally. Organizations like Alight seek out and elevate Refugee-led solutions, trusting that people closest to the problems have the best ideas for how to solve them. Alight’s Kuja Kuja initiative elicits customer feedback and ideas from refugees daily. So far, its resulted in 1,597,071 conversations had to date and 1,000 subsequent actions taken, allowing humanitarian organizations real-time opportunities to improve their services. Celebrities like YouTube star Jerome Jarre have successfully inspired mass audiences to give small amounts directly to displaced people, avoiding the middle man and raising millions in the process.
Entities and individuals such as these are rejecting the status quo and actively engaging new solutions and ideas for the region. Their programs trend toward human-centered, bottom-up solutions, flipping traditional models of top-down, bureaucratic interventions that have become the norm.
It’s a start, to be certain. But it’s also true that some of the most creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial minds have been drawn to the sexier, headline-dominated places at the center of the “global refugee crisis” moniker, especially in Europe. It naturally follows that increased philanthropic innovation is an outcome of heightened media attention.
This attention isn’t wrong, or even misplaced. But protracted refugee situations like those in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, South Sudan, Burundi, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Malawi deserve the brightest minds the world has to offer alongside the emerging crises that capture the public’s imagination. And in fact, it’s often the grim scenarios happening there that encourage a rejection of the system, a mass exodus to Europe. Because why would someone, anyone, want to spend two decades in a refugee camp when the bright light of opportunity beckons elsewhere?
These forgotten lives deserve to be seen. Their stories told, with the same kind of passion and fixation paid in the public sphere. Successes are happening, but the rate of change is painfully slow. This is an entrenched phenomenon for which there is no single, straightforward solution. Shining a light on it might help. The question is — how do you get people to listen?
Carly Lunden is an anthropologically-trained writer and creator who most recently served at Alight, a refugee-centered agency operating in 17 countries globally. She now runs Asterisk, her Rwanda-based communications firm, writes freelance journalism, and supports refugee-focused humanitarian organizations tell stories that stick.