Posted by: astridstort | April 19, 2011

No refugee should be a refugee forever

This time we took the  Regional Dialogues on Women and Girls all the way down to Zambia in southern Africa where we stayed from 11-16 April. The last two days of the Dialogues were attended by Erika Feller, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection and one of four most senior officals in UNHCR.

Most refugees in Zambia live in two huge refugee settlements in the North Western province  called Meheba and Mayukwayuka, while others are in urban areas or even self settled. By the end of the year, the refugee status of refugees from Rwanda and Angola will end and many of this group– apart from some with special concerns–will return home.

“Cessation is an important step for refugees and UNHCR” said Erika Feller, “No refugee should be a refugee forever. “

We (the facilitators from the University of New South wales and UNHCR)  spent the week with seventy women and ten men from Angola, Rwanda, the Democratic republic of Congo, Somalia, Burundi and Ethiopia who had come from all over to gather in Lusaka.

Erika Feller, UNHCRs top official attends the dialogues, a model which she believes should be duplicated worldwide (UNHCR@A.v.GenderenStort)

During our talks all women spoke about the huge concern they have about violence and rapes and about the impunity faced by perpetrators of crimes, We kept on hearing stories about children being raped, and some even as young as four years old. Teachers in the schools, the women said, were often very young and good grades would be offered in exchange for sex.  Protection for the girls cannot be guaranteed, and as a result women are very scared to send their children to school or leave them at home alone, unattended. Anyone could just come in.

Medical care and staff are also limited, medication not enough and clinics so far removed that deaths occur as a result. “There are so many forced teenage pregnancies but there is not enough medical care. Girls die on the way to the clinic, simply because their hips are not wide enough” one refugee said.

Refugees also spoke about the lack of schools, and the overcrowded classrooms which make receiving good education nearly impossible.“Some schools have ninety pupils in one class. Scholarships are rare. Girls drop out early and are forced into early marriages.”

Many also highlighted the lack of freedom of movement for the refugees and the difficulties they face with too expensive work permits.Sometimes only the father of the family has a work permit to run a shop and when he falls sick, his wife cannot take over. Single mothers can hardly make ends meet, having to care for their families, earn an income and survive in a difficult refugee surrounding. The lack of enough sanitary material or soap to wash material needed during the menstruation period, can confine a woman to the house for a week every month which can seriously impact the family she is expected to support.

Erika Feller was very happy with the dialogue process but also commented that it was very disturbing to see that in 2011 so many women still face daily problems of violence and abuse and have to fight to fend them for themselves. She stressed that everyone has the responsibility to (help) empower the refugee women and to provide them with skills which can make them more independent.

It seems so difficult to address all the problems refugees face. The UNHCR office in Zambia is doing a fantastic job, but is seriously hampered by the fact that it does not have enough staff and funds to address all the issues raised by the refugees. This is where it is very important that the government, UNHCR, donors and the refugee community work very closely together. Even without a lot of money, communities can be empowered to fight against violence and injustice around them and refugees can be taught by their own teachers and cured by their own doctors. Nothing comes for free, but a lot can be done with little as long as there is help and goodwill of all. (for more check also UNHCR website at http://www.unhcr.org/4dac46d66.html)

Refugee women in Zambia expressed their concern about violence and rape in particular against young girls who need to be better protected (UNHCR@AvGenderenStort)

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