Elderly refugees struggle to integrate in Slovenia

News Stories, 17 January 2008

© UNHCR/M.Sunjic
Homesick Bosnian refugee Osman, aged 84, shows visitors around his apartment in Maribor.

MARIBOR, Slovenia, January 17 (UNHCR) Elderly Bosnian refugee Aisa expects to live out her twilight years in Slovenia, but though the country has given her shelter for the past 15 years she will never really fit in.

"I have no home to go back to. My children are refugees, scattered all over the world. I am taking care of my health and waiting for the days to go by," the septuagenarian told UNHCR visitors to her small, newly renovated apartment in Slovenia's second largest city, Maribor.

Aisa and most of the other 74 elderly Bosnian refugees living in her housing complex have been offered language classes and all the help they need to survive. But, to the concern of UNHCR and the authorities, they will never fully integrate like their younger compatriots. It's a problem seen around Europe.

"These people were left behind. Their close relatives were either killed in the war [in Bosnia from 1992-1995] or dispersed in exile," said Drago Hausmeister, manager of the state-run housing project. "They are too old to work or to learn Slovenian properly. So they spend their days visiting doctors, watching TV and drinking coffee with the neighbours."

"Old people need a family support system to integrate. Without that, they are usually struggling with boredom, loneliness and depression," added Lloyd Dakin, UNHCR's Budapest-based regional representative.

In UNHCR's experience, such groups with special needs are often left at the end of mass refugee movements. Young and middle-aged refugees are usually able to rebuild their lives in a new country, but those aged more than 60 have a much harder time.

They tend to be the most reluctant to leave their homes in the first place, fleeing only when there is no real option available. And this is reflected in the figures; in Poland, for example, official statistics show that an annual average of only 0.7 percent of new arrivals are aged above 60.

UNHCR breaks down the integration process into three key inter-related processes: legal recognition as a refugee, economic self-sufficiency and absorption of the cultural and social characteristics of the host country.

The first step is pretty straightforward, but it is in the second two areas that many of the elderly, especially those on their own, fail to make sufficient progress.

In the case of the Maribor group, the Slovenian authorities gave Aisa and her neighbours indefinite legal residence in 2002. But finding full-time employment at their age was another matter, and most of them rely on social welfare and other government and NGO assistance.

As for cultural and social integration, elderly refugees in Slovenia and elsewhere in Europe show almost no progress. Too old or too traumatized to learn a new language or to rebuild social networks from scratch, they tend to hover on the margins of host societies.

"We have never been better in worse times," said 84-year-old Osman, summarizing the predicament of the elderly Bosnians in Maribor. The widower gets all the assistance he needs, but says that no one can give him back his life. He treasures photos of the home in eastern Bosnia that he left in 1992.

In contrast, his 20-year-old granddaughter Mersada speaks fluent Slovenian and mingles easily. She is studying tourism and hopes to one day move out of the refugee housing project and manage a hotel.

But while many of the elderly refugees here suffer from depression and tend to look to the past, rather than the future, they acknowledge a debt to the Slovenian government. "We are grateful for what we get and, most of all, we are grateful that we are safe and sound here," said 71-year-old Hajrija, while sipping coffee with her neighbour.

By Melita H. Sunjic in Maribor, Slovenia




UNHCR country pages

A Place to Call Home(Part 2): 1996 - 2003

This gallery highlights the history of UNHCR's efforts to help some of the world's most disenfranchised people to find a place called home, whether through repatriation, resettlement or local integration.

After decades of hospitality after World War II, as the global political climate changed and the number of people cared for by UNHCR swelled from around one million in 1951, to more than 27 million people in the mid-1990s, the welcome mat for refugees was largely withdrawn.

Voluntary repatriation has become both the preferred and only practical solution for today's refugees. In fact, the great majority of them choose to return to their former homes, though for those who cannot do so for various reasons, resettlement in countries like the United States and Australia, and local integration within regions where they first sought asylum, remain important options.

This gallery sees Rwandans returning home after the 1994 genocide; returnees to Kosovo receiving reintegration assistance; Guatemalans obtaining land titles in Mexico; and Afghans flocking home in 2003 after decades in exile.

A Place to Call Home(Part 2): 1996 - 2003

A Place to Call Home (Part 1): 1953 - 1995

Based on the 2004 World Refugee Day theme, "A place to call home: Rebuilding lives in safety and dignity", this two-part gallery highlights the history of UNHCR's efforts to help some of the world's most disenfranchised people to find a place called home, whether through repatriation, resettlement or local integration.

In more than a half century of humanitarian work, the UN refugee agency has helped more than 50 million uprooted people across the globe to successfully restart their lives.

Following the end of World War II and in the prevailing climate of the Cold War, many refugees, including those fleeing Soviet-dominated countries or the aftermath of the conflict in Indo China, were welcomed by the countries to which they initially fled or resettled in states even further afield.

In Part 1 of the gallery, a family restarts its life in New Zealand in the 1950s after years in a German camp; Vietnamese children make their first snowman in Sweden; while two sisters rebuild their home after returning to post-war Mozambique in the early 1990s.

A Place to Call Home (Part 1): 1953 - 1995

Assessing Refugee Needs in Brazil

UNHCR staff have been visiting and talking to urban refugees around Brazil to assess their protection needs of refugees and other people of concern. The refugee agency, working with local partners, carries out a three-week Participatory Assessment every year. UNHCR uses an age, gender and diversity approach during the exercise. This means also talking to minority and vulnerable groups, including women, older people, those living with disability and more. The findings allow UNHCR to develop an appropriate protection response. This year's exercise was conducted in five cities - São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasília, Rio Grande de Sul and Manaus. Refugees taking part said the assessment allowed them to share views, problems and solutions with UNHCR and others. Various stakeholders, including government officials, aid workers and academics, also participated.

Assessing Refugee Needs in Brazil

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