Can Refugees Help?
– Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter 2002, Cambridge It’s no secret that Western governments have long sought to limit the number of refugees that enter their borders. But now, African countries, which take in more than 20 percent of all displaced persons, are doing the same — as well as ...
- Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter 2002, Cambridge
– Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 40, No. 4, Winter 2002, Cambridge
It’s no secret that Western governments have long sought to limit the number of refugees that enter their borders. But now, African countries, which take in more than 20 percent of all displaced persons, are doing the same — as well as restricting the mobility of the refugees they do accept. In Kenya, for example, refugees must remain in officially designated camps located in desolate areas of the country; those who leave the camps without authorization risk being subjected to late-night raids, arrest, and jail time. The continent’s leaders cite security concerns and overburdened budgets, schools, and hospitals as key reasons why refugees aren’t welcome.
But do refugees bring only strife to their African host countries? No, says Karen Jacobsen, a visiting scholar at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. In a recent issue of the quarterly Journal of Modern African Studies, Jacobsen maintains that refugees offer great short-term and long-term economic benefits to host states and communities in Africa. Unfortunately, she argues, those positive contributions could be outweighed by the security threats that refugees sometimes pose.
Jacobsen maintains that "… refugees can increase the overall welfare of the host community in two ways: international refugee assistance ‘trickles out’ into the community, and the economic activities of refugees contribute to the host community’s standard of living." During fiscal year 2000, host countries in sub-Saharan Africa received nearly $250 million from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Most of the money was earmarked for refugees in camps, but some of it found its way into the local community. Aid organizations purposely give money and other resources (such as food) to host communities to encourage their continued openness to refugees. Shortly after Mozambican refugees were repatriated from Malawi in 1995, for example, UNHCR turned over $35 million worth of facilities, including schools, health clinics, vehicles, and equipment, to the Malawian government for use by locals.
Refugees also directly contribute to host economies. They usually bring some resources (trucks, gold, or cattle) with them, and they provide much-needed labor and skills not found in the host community. They are also industrious entrepreneurs. For example, Liberian refugees in a camp in Ghana started small businesses to build telephone lines, houses, and water facilities for the local community. And Sudanese refugees in Uganda who set up stores and roadside stands in some remote areas of the country have aided the local economy by catering to tourists and encouraging Ugandan businesses to move to these areas.
Undoubtedly, host governments will want to exploit the positive contributions of refugees to benefit their own citizens. But since the majority of refugees in Africa remain in their host countries for 10 years on average, these governments should also provide refugees with some type of training to help them become self-sufficient and thus diminish resentment from local residents. Consider the experience of Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea in the 1990s. Encouraged by the Guinean government and UNHCR to participate in a self-settlement program, the newly displaced persons joined local agricultural and industrial training programs and took up trades similar to those they had engaged in at home. Later, the UNHCR found that these refugees were fairly self-sufficient; today, most of them no longer depend on assistance.
Threats to security, however, can offset the benefits that refugees bring. "The most serious of these problems," Jacobsen writes, "is… the import of conflict from the sending country." For example, in the 1990s, Burundian rebels sought protection in refugee camps inside Tanzania and then launched cross-border raids. Animosity between the Tanzanian and Burundian governments exacerbated the conflict, as Tanzanian officials did little to separate the rebels from other refugees or to punish those guilty of violence. Additionally, refugee camps themselves can create security problems. Forcing refugees to remain in camps may provide humanitarian organizations with better access to those who need aid, but camps constitute easy targets for attacks, the author argues. Moreover, confining refugees in camps limits the positive impact that refugee resources can have on the host community.
Jacobsen offers a solution: Host governments should firmly establish a presence in far-flung areas of their countries and secure their borders. Local residents and refugees would benefit from such measures.
The author’s argument focuses primarily on the positive impact that refugees can make on African host governments. But her message is one that host countries around the world — as well as international aid organizations — would do well to heed.
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