Another angle to Angola, refugee host country

News Stories, 21 December 2004

© UNHCR/F.Bonelli
The refugee centre in Luanda runs programmes for children and youth. The colourful art works in the background are the result of one of their projects.

LUANDA, Angola, Dec 21 (UNHCR) Angola knows all about refugees. For 27 years, the country's civil war sent hundreds of thousands of Angolans fleeing into the region. As the conflict ended in 2002, the refugees started returning home, many with UNHCR assistance in a repatriation movement that was recently suspended due to the rainy season.

But a lesser-known fact about Angola is that it is also a host country for thousands of refugees from other parts of Africa, and from countries as far away as Iraq and China. Many of them are urban refugees living in the capital, Luanda, where a community centre was recently set up to help them integrate into their host community.

"We do not offer assistance, and this is not what refugees and asylum seekers want," says the centre's coordinator, Musingele K., a refugee himself. The centre's objectives are much more complex and demanding. "We teach refugees how to write CVs and applications to find employment, we help them develop their skills and attain self-reliance. We are teaching them not to expect aid but to stand on their own feet."

The centre also organises health counselling with a special emphasis on HIV/AIDS, cultural activities and children's and youth groups. UNHCR is supporting activities like language courses, micro-credit schemes and sensitisation programmes on violence against women.

There are an estimated 1,500 refugee families in Luanda. In 2004 alone, the centre was contacted by refugees more than 4,000 times. The clients are mostly from West and Central Africa, but recently even Chinese and Iraqi asylum seekers have been showing up. Many of them are highly educated, with skills that could prove useful to Angolan society.

"Most Angolans treat refugees alright, there is not much xenophobia. But the problem is that refugees are a new occurrence here and many Angolans simply do not understand what a refugee is," says Musingele. There are endless stories of police officers who arrest refugees and asylum seekers in spite of valid papers, because they are not familiar with refugee documents. Refugees often face problems with potential employers and authorities when trying to find jobs or set up businesses.

So the centre trains and informs key stakeholders in the Luandan government and corporate world. Sometimes it is enough to show them copies of the Angolan refugee law that proves refugees and asylum seekers are legally entitled to be gainfully employed or to run certain businesses.

Integration is not a one-way street. Refugee activists at the community centre address not just their fellow refugees, but also the local population. Concerts and cultural events are a good way to reach out to the music- and art-loving Angolans. A number of very successful cultural events have already been organised; more will follow. The colourful murals in the centre are the result of one of the programmes for local and refugee children.

Apart from this recently-arrived group of highly-skilled refugees, there is another more destitute group of refugees in Viana, in the outskirts of Luanda, whose problems are completely different. These are some 7,000 "old" cases of people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other parts of Africa who had initially sought refuge in various Angolan provinces. As the civil war raged in Angola, they were displaced for a second time, fleeing to the relative safety of the capital.

These are poor and vulnerable people. Some 80 percent are women, widows and single mothers of rural background with little or no education. Assistance to them is quite different from the kind extended to urban newcomers. They receive vocational skills training, information on general hygiene and HIV/AIDS. The most vulnerable single mothers also receive food assistance or accommodation.

Blanket food aid for all Viana refugees was stopped about two months ago. The centre's main task now is to change these refugees' attitudes. Accustomed to receiving aid, they are not used to making their own living. But in a country of great poverty, such an approach does not seem to be justifiable any longer.

Musingele says, "We now have to break this dependency syndrome. These people, especially the second generation of refugees, have to understand that they themselves have to take charge of their lives. We are helping them to develop confidence."

As the UNHCR delegation walks through the community centre in Luanda, a multilingual crowd of urban refugees gathers around the visitors, speaking French, English and Portuguese. One refugee even tries his impeccable Serbo-Croatian on the group.

"We had to flee with empty handed," says a Burundian refugee, "but we bring with us many of the skills and human resources Angola so desperately needs. They should just let us help them rebuild this country!"

While the Viana refugees may have a long way to go, the urban refugees in Luanda know what they want and how to achieve it. All they need now is to get the Angolans on board.

By Melita H. Sunjic in Angola