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Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (The international year of the family) - African refugee families

Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (The international year of the family) - African refugee families
Refugees (Issue 95, I - 1994)

1 March 1994
Understanding family kinship patterns and household structures is crucial to successful refugee programmes in Africa and elsewhere.

Understanding family kinship patterns and household structures is crucial to successful refugee programmes in Africa and elsewhere.

By Sarah Norton-Staal

The huge number of refugees in Africa has had a devastating effect on the economic and social structure of the continent, where an estimated 6 million people are currently assisted by UNHCR. In addition to these 6 million refugees, there are an estimated 12 million displaced people.

At the macro level, this large refugee and displaced population has had severe consequences on the productive growth of African economies. At the more micro level, the refugee crisis has had a negative impact on African communities and families.

"Family" has a wide range of definitions cross-culturally. This is particularly true in Africa, where kinship systems and residence and marriage patterns create family shapes, values, and obligations that vary among regions and between ethnic groups.

Across cultures, families link households and communities, and play a vital role in the development process in several ways, including:

  • As a productive and economic unit;
  • In the provision of social security for vulnerable groups through kinship ties;
  • Through formal and informal education, and preservation of cultural identity.

These family functions have been disturbed in Africa, where civil strife and natural disasters have caused involuntary migration and the creation of large populations of refugees.

Refugees are often perceived as dependent individuals who live in large camps and receive food and other aid irrespective of their cultural origins. Without a country of their own, they are living in an artificial setting, a socio-cultural void. But it is important to understand refugees according to their own unique socio-cultural background, and that their needs will vary according to traditions. Understanding the family kinship patterns and household structures of refugee populations, and developing community-based assistance efforts that attempt to work within the boundaries of family and societal traditions help refugees to adapt more easily to their sudden transfer to an alien environment.

Africa is predominantly an agrarian society, and refugees come largely from rural areas. In Ethiopia for example, more than 90 percent of the population depends on agriculture for subsistence, and in Uganda more than 85 percent of the people live in rural areas. These rural households are usually marked by a socio-economic division of labour, with all household members, male and female, young and old, given specific roles and functions. These include such tasks as cultivating, harvesting, processing, storing and marketing agricultural produce.

But in many parts of Africa, land scarcity and population growth have altered the traditional agrarian economy and caused rural out-migration as people go in search of wage labour to supplement the family income. This changing pattern in the African rural household economy reveals a gradual evolution of family roles in response to changing economic needs.

By contrast, the forced migration of refugees in response to political and environmental disasters has thrust more sudden changes on the rural economy, and the family. There is no opportunity for gradual adaptations to develop in the refugee crisis. Entire communities are abandoned and agricultural production stops completely. The families who survive the crises of war, famine and forced dislocation and become members of the refugee community must establish their new households in an alien setting, without the comfort and resources of the rural economy they have left behind.

While refugee communities quickly develop their own economies, many of the traditional economic roles of the refugee population are abandoned due to the limitations of the settlement or camp setting. For example, nomadic and pastoral people are typically forced to abandon livestock raising because they no longer have access to range land. For many refugee families, this causes a cultural identity crisis, as well as an economic hardship.

In flight, households and family members are often separated. Women are forced to flee without male family members who are left behind to fight. In northern Uganda, for example, Sudanese women refugees are left alone to manage households without their husbands. Previously dependent on farming in Sudan, these women are left alone with no alternative sources of support.

Men's and women's roles, developed over time to suit the environment and the economy where they evolved, are so disrupted that the family may become dysfunctional. Decision-making authority given to women in agrarian economies - such as control of certain crops and resources - may no longer exist in the new refugee environment.

Marriage is an integral part of family formation. The initiation of marriage assumes various forms in different African cultures, including pre-nuptial economic arrangements in many societies. These economic transactions create essential bonds of kinship and help to ensure the endurance of family unions formed through the alliance of marriage. In the refugee setting, these traditional arrangements are often not possible.

Research among refugee communities in Ethiopia, for example, has revealed problems among both Sudanese and Somali populations because of the breakdown of traditional marriage arrangements. When Nuor and Dinka Sudanese men were unable to afford cattle for the traditional payment to the bride's family, they began to abduct their brides illegally. This "kidnapping" among Sudanese refugees in Ethiopia has resulted in conflict among families and a disruption of the refugee community.

This example illustrates the need for social services among refugee populations. In this particular case, social workers were able to help open a dialogue between all sides that led to a compromise in meeting traditional marriage obligations in the alien environment of a refugee camp. Similar problems have also occurred among Somali refugees. Because the normal payments for a bride cannot be secured by Somali refugee men prior to marriage, the marriage itself is seen as less of a commitment and the divorce rate has climbed accordingly.

Somali women refugees note that the high rate of abandonment can also be attributed to the fact that men no longer have a viable economic role to play in the refugee setting. As a result, many men leave in search of jobs in other countries, leaving their families behind. This is especially true in many first-asylum countries in Africa which are unable to provide enough work for their own citizens, let alone thousands of refugees.

Although the provision of basic education to refugee children is one of the primary goals of UNHCR assistance, it cannot replace the non-formal training provided by the family. In Africa, the family is primarily responsible for teaching children cultural and religious values, as well as the skills necessary to become self-supporting adults. This includes farming and herding, as well as the processing and trading of agricultural products. Children who are born and brought up as refugees are often deprived of the opportunity to learn these skills.

Refugee children and their families are also affected by their exposure to different education systems and languages in their host country. Some Sudanese refugee children who were separated and then reunited with their families were unable to communicate with their parents. Re-integration within their own culture and society also becomes more complex. Social centres offering cultural activities are encouraged by UNHCR to help young refugees learn about their own traditions, languages and customs.

The introduction to foreign education systems also creates gender and culture conflicts. Girls who attended sex segregated schools in their own country may be thrust into integrated systems, which are unacceptable to their parents. For some parents, no education for girls is better than the "danger" posed by educating boys and girls together.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (1994)