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Taking the temperature of the world's refugees

Taking the temperature of the world's refugees

In October, special interviewing teams have been holding a series of meetings with refugees and asylum seekers of both genders, and different ages and ethnic backgrounds, in some 40 countries across the world, in order to develop a clearer understanding of their needs, problems, and priorities.
28 October 2005
Children's own perspectives are often overlooked when planning refugee programmes, but if asked – like these Roma children in an asylum home in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana – they have plenty to say.

BUDAPEST, Hungary, October 28 (UNHCR) - "I am a car mechanic, but my diploma is not acknowledged in Slovenia, so I cannot get a suitable job," said a recognized African refugee. A teenage Roma girl in a reception centre for asylum seekers explained how embarrassed she was at having to undress in front of strangers every night. The asylum home she lives in is so overcrowded that two families have to share each room. UNHCR and NGO staff, together with government representatives, listened intently as refugees spoke of their problems - some minor, some very serious.

In October, the UN refugee agency has been holding a series of meetings with refugees and asylum seekers in some 40 countries throughout the world. This is part of the Gender Age and Diversity (GAD) roll-out, a new global exercise designed to improve understanding of the concerns of refugees themselves. The title is somewhat off-putting, but the exercise is considerably more interesting and less bureaucratic than it sounds. And it should result in some very tangible benefits for refugees and asylum seekers.

On six continents, teams made up of the same triumvirate of actors - UNHCR, NGO and government representatives - met with refugee and asylum seeker groups of both genders, and different ages and ethnic backgrounds, to hear what they had to say about their lives.

As refugee experts, the team members all had at least anecdotal knowledge of refugees' problems, but the GAD exercise is geared towards a much more structured gathering of data: Do male and female refugees perceive their lives differently? What problems do different ethnic groups face during the asylum procedure and integration process? What are the specific concerns of children, adolescents, and older people?

In Central Europe, the most important factor turned out to be the legal status of the people concerned. Refugees and asylum seekers - although often talked about as though they are one and the same - have to face two completely different sets of problems, while the distinctions between the two genders and different age groups seems to be of less concern. However, race and skin colour influence integration chances. The more "different" the looks, the less easily refugees are accepted by their host societies.

UNHCR spent more than a year preparation for the GAD roll-out. In the summer of 2004, pilot projects were carried out in 14 selected counties. The results were then evaluated by UNHCR and by external consultants in early 2005. The analysis confirmed the soundness of the methodology, and the immense value of the "multifunctional team" approach in improving direct contact with refugees.

Between March and May 2005, UNHCR staff with a variety of different specializations and regional knowledge worked together with partner NGOs on the GAD strategy, and training materials and special check lists and forms, were prepared.

In June, a one-week training course for field facilitators was held. Those facilitators then returned to begin preparations in their respective host countries. So-called "multifunctional teams" were formed and trained. Representative samples of refugees and asylum seekers were selected in different locations. Focus groups were organized, according to gender and age group (10-13 years, 14-17 years, 18-40 years and over 40). Refugees and asylum seekers were also differentiated, as were ethnic backgrounds.

In the Central European region alone (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Slovenia), 112 different focus groups were interviewed by the teams - a figure which gives some idea of the immense amount of data obtained during an exercise that was carried out simultaneously in 40 countries.

As one member of the team in Hungary put it: "We were taking the temperature of the refugee communities." And very varied the temperature turned out to be.

In Central Europe, the biggest problem for recognized refugees seems to be the lack of integration programmes. Once people are recognized as refugees, the governments expect them to be self-sufficient, whilst access to accommodation, to the labour market and to social benefits is hampered by language barriers, xenophobia and legal provisions.

For asylum seekers, problems vary from country to country. In Poland, primary education is a big issue. Not only do Polish schools expect their pupils to speak the language as they enrol, many reception centres are located far from towns and it is physically difficult for the children to get to a school. As a consequence, nearly half of the asylum-seeker children of school age do not attend school.

In Slovenia, asylum seekers were unhappy about the overcrowded facilities they live in; and about the overworked, sometimes unsympathetic, staff assigned to work with them.

Many Hungarian asylum seekers felt that they are not informed properly about their rights and entitlements and that they have difficulties in finding gainful employment.

In Slovakia, it is the recognition rate - one of the lowest in the world - that is the main problem. One Afghan man told the multifunctional team there that he has been waiting for an asylum decision for more than three years. This feeling of being stuck in limbo was the only thing that mattered to him: "We're more or less satisfied with accommodation, food, free-time activities, so why discuss this?" he said in perfect Slovak. "We've also learned the language - but for what? Maybe we will never be granted asylum here!"

After conducting all the interviews, the multifunctional teams from all across the region met in a workshop to analyze the findings, and to work out the similarities and disparities between the problems of refugee women and men, boys and girls of different origins. Everybody agreed that they now have a much clearer picture of the needs of refugee communities. Some of the problems that came up can be solved immediately, others will take more time.

More than a hundred formal discussions - and many more informal discussions - were held with refugees and asylum seekers in Central Europe. Here, a UNHCR staff member talks to asylum seekers in Adamov Reception Centre in Slovakia.

Currently, all UNHCR offices in Central Europe are scrutinizing the collected results in order to translate refugee needs into concrete operational goals for the coming years. For now, 40 countries are involved, but by 2007 all UNHCR operations will use the same GAD methodology to ensure full participation of all refugee groups.

Maricela Daniel is a Senior Protection Officer covering Central Europe at the UN refugee agency's headquarters in Geneva. She was one of the facilitators and says she is very satisfied with the outcome of the whole exercise: "The teams were very successful in gathering additional information. We now need to work with the governments and partners to see how best to incorporate the refugees' views in our operations so that they respond to the real needs of refugee women, men, girls and boys. The main goal of the Gender Age and Diversity Roll-out has been achieved, which is to place refugees at the heart of all our planning and decision-making processes."

By Melita H. Sunjic in Budapest, Hungary