Secret aid worker: ‘resettling refugees was the bane of our lives’

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Resettlement is presented to refugees as the golden ticket to a better life, but as it happens to so few, we need to be offering better alternatives

A migrant boy waits at his parents’ suitcase as they apply for asylum in Berlin. Photograph: Stefanie Loos/Reuters

“If you cannot help me, what are you actually doing here?”

It was a reasonable question, and one I often asked myself. The situation at the refugee reception centre in Khartoum where I worked was tough; hot, crowded and raucous. The man who posed the question looked much older and grizzled than his 40 years and had lived more of his life in Sudan than in his home country of Ethiopia. I had nothing for him: “I’m afraid Sir, at this time, there is nothing the UNHCR can do for you” I said, as I had said hundreds of times before. It was my mantra to be as honest as possible. I wanted no ambiguity, no false hope.

Khartoum has become a hub of forced migration with those fleeing from Ethiopia and Eritrea making up the vast majority. Often they will come here via the refugee camps in the east of Sudan and use the city as a stepping stone to pay smugglers to take them to North Africa, where many then die attempting to get to Europe.

“But there are others who came to Sudan at the same time as me and they have been resettled to America,” the man replied ignoring my attempt to fob him off. There was jostling in the queue behind him, people trying to catch my eye, wanting me to bring them forward to the front of the line.

Resettlement, in fact, was the bane of our lives. Seen as the golden ticket out of Sudan, it was at the forefront of the thoughts of most refugees and asylum seekers. But as resettlement would only happen for a very limited number, it also destroyed community cohesion, with community members casting aspersions on the stories of potential resettlement candidates. Unjustified accusations of wrongdoing were thrown at my Sudanese colleagues, and it was the reason I was called so often to the reception. The Sudanese staff were not trusted to give an honest answer, but after a while of being wheeled out the refugees were starting to mistrust me too.

Refugees are selected for resettlement based upon certain criteria, usually, but not always, vulnerability. But let’s be clear – this is not working, as the need always outpaces the numbers foreign countries are willing to take. The UNHCR and Sudanese government have around 16,000 refugees registered on its database but there is probably double this number who you could consider as ‘persons of concern’. Yet only a few hundred are resettled from Sudan each year. Those with a chance of a new life abroad also have to compete with refugees from other crises around the world. With resettlement places so scarce, it is no wonder that there’s bitterness towards those who seemingly denied them an opportunity of a new life abroad.

“I’m sorry Sir but we look at each case on an individual basis,” I said bringing out one of my well-worn explanations. “It’s not that I don’t think you deserve resettlement, it’s just that you don’t meet the criteria. I’m afraid there are others more in need.”

It didn’t work. “But I deserve it the most!” The man shouted so loudly and aggressively that it made the interpreter flinch despite the metal bars that separated us.

I meant what I said to the man. Many of those who came to speak to me did deserve resettlement and a chance at a better life. The situation in Khartoum for refugees was dire, and the government, not exactly known for its human rights record, made life as difficult for them as possible. And this was not to mention the awful conditions in their own countries, for example Eritrea where indefinite national service forced thousands to leave every year.

Sudan enforces an encampment policy, essentially ignoring the needs of urban refugees. There’s no government department tasked with determining new arrivals’ refugee status (you must be a refugee to be resettled), little if no social support, and frequent police round ups for those working.

Due to the government’s ambivalence and the lack of solutions other than resettlement people were leaving for Libya in their droves. Often middle aged women would come to speak to me and report their children missing. After asking the women if they had reported the disappearance to the police or if they had seen anyone suspicious hanging about their home I would frequently come to the conclusion that they had not been kidnapped or detained (although this did happen with alarming frequency) but had chosen to go to Libya. The women were heartbroken and found it more palatable that their children had been taken rather than made a willful choice to leave them.

From experiences like this, it’s clear greater efforts must be made to give forcibly displaced people more dignity through systematic access to the labour market and easier access to social and medical services. The options for their future can’t just be resettlement or nothing.

Some governments have already taken steps towards this end. Uganda has a policy in place to treat refugees on a par with local communities. Jordan also has sought to incorporate Syrian refugees into the labour market. But policies like this need to become the norm across the world, not the exception.

“My children are threatening to go to Europe. They cannot go to university. No one can work. I cannot feed my family. What are you going to do about it?” the man continued to shout. I was completely impotent. What could I do? How could we stop someone from trying to cross the desert for the want of a better life?

This is the crux of the matter. There will always be a demand at the source. Let us not forget that until recently, with the deterioration of Libya, another prime route for smugglers was Israel through the Sinai. People will always find a way because no matter how bad crossing those twin seas of sand and water is for those fleeing their homelands it’s worth the risk. It doesn’t matter what Europe does unless the problem is dealt with at the source. There is no such thing as a “humanitarian crisis”, only a political crisis with humanitarian consequences.

“Sir, I’m very sorry there’s still nothing I can do. I wish there was but I would be lying to you. Thank you for your time.”

“You’re worse than they are….” the man replied vehemently pointing at my Sudanese colleague “… may God curse you.” He walked away, shoulders slumped, a defeated man. I called the next person forward.

Source     –    The Guardian

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