5 September 1996
New Internationalist Issue 283
From this month's editor
What does the term 'refugee' mean to you? Wide-eyed orphans in Bosnia, groups of ragged and starving people in Africa? Or people seeking refuge from persecution or poverty?
'A refugee is a negative person... a birthchild of bad political decisions and actions by Governments,' says Carlos Twesigomwe, the Deputy Director of Refugees in Uganda. 'The major consequences of these decisions are the persecution of individuals and massive situations of conflict.'
So why should this concern us? Because, like us - our children, our friends and our neighbours - refugees are human. They feel pain and suffering in the same way that we do, and our basic common humanity calls us to help.
But there are other reasons. Many of our governments are implicated, directly or indirectly, currently or historically, in the conflicts that cause refugees to flee. And there are more of them all the time. In 1989 there were 17 million refugees; in 1993 there were 23 million and in 1995 there were 27 million. The result is that today governments are having to define their policies on asylum-seekers ever more clearly.
It was with this in mind that we decided to produce an issue of the NI looking at life inside a refugee settlement. As this issue's editor I wanted to find out for myself and I also wanted to bring home to readers how refugees lived their lives, fetched their water, cooked their food, looked after their children, and sorted out their problems.
I chose Africa because it is the media images of African refugees that are the most painful and the most dehumanised. And yet of all governments, those in Africa are among the most tolerant and most welcoming to the traumatized thousands seeking refuge on their territory.
Refugee situations, at least to start with, are usually classic 'emergencies' in which people are deprived of any say in what happens to them. Rwanda, Sudan, Bosnia, Afghanistan: the first floods of people leaving a country in a hurry inevitably create chaos. Food, water and shelter have to be the first priorities. But often refugee projects are unable to move beyond this. It is crucial that they do. 'Denying refugees the chance to participate deprives them of self-esteem and dignity, causing depression, anxiety and apathy,' says one commentator.
I could have gone anywhere. But in the end I chose Ikafe, a settlement for Sudanese refugees in northernmost Uganda. There on a huge parcel of land that was formerly dense bush, Oxfam, together with the Government of Uganda and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have launched a brave experiment.
Instead of the usual relationship of powerful donor and dependent recipient, the goal was for refugees to take charge of their own lives. It's an approach that Tony Burdon, Oxfam's Country Representative in Uganda, calls 'working with refugees in a way that increases their voice'. In Ikafe it means providing them with land so they can grow food for themselves; developing a system of democratic decision-making and encouraging women to become central players in that system.
The situation of refugees normally renders them powerless and persecuted. Ikafe is trying to change this, to involve the refugees in a way which gives them back their dignity. And that's what I wanted to explore. Were the refugees really able to make their voices heard? Could they grow their own food? Would Ikafe be able to challenge the media stereotype of apathy and horror?
This magazine is the result of my findings...
Nikki van der Gaag
for the New Internationalist Co-operative
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