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Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (Life in a refugee camp) - Self-reliance: 'Think Solutions'

Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (Life in a refugee camp) - Self-reliance: 'Think Solutions'
Refugees (105, III - 1996)

1 September 1996
In the post-Cold War era, it has become increasingly difficult to raise funds for the care and maintenance of refugees. It is now essential to try and help refugees become self-reliant at the very first opportunity.

In the post-Cold War era, it has become increasingly difficult to raise funds for the care and maintenance of refugees. It is now essential to try and help refugees become self-reliant at the very first opportunity.

The small vegetable gardens around the Somali huts in Hartisheik are a testament to the refugees' efforts to help themselves. Here and there, chickens and goats roam about. They are familiar scenes in refugee settings no matter how inhospitable - be it in the dry plain of eastern Ethiopia, where Hartisheik is located, or the lava rock formations in eastern Zaire that are home to one million Rwandan refugees.

UNHCR makes every effort to help the refugees become self-reliant, whenever the opportunity presents itself in asylum countries or in countries where they have returned after a life in exile. Assistance programmes include the distribution of agricultural seeds and tools, and income-generating activities such as micro-credit schemes for sewing, small livestock, food processing, pottery and carpentry. These are relatively small initiatives and the benefits are limited. But in areas where innovative projects are undertaken with the cooperation of governments and appropriate funding by donors, they improve life for refugees and their host communities.

In the post-Cold War era, it has become increasingly difficult to raise funds to care for and maintain refugees in many countries, says Larbi Mebtouche, UNHCR's senior economist and planner. "Beyond the emergency phase, donors are demanding solutions to refugee problems," he said. "The buzzword now is think solutions to set up a strategy for self-reliance at the earliest stage." Mebtouche says UNHCR spends some $13 million to $14 million annually for income-generating activities in an effort to get rid of the dependency syndrome inherent in most refugee situations.

Some imaginative solutions have been found in some countries, says Mebtouche. He refers to a programme for the 50,000 Vietnamese refugees in five provinces in southern China for which UNHCR used to spend $2 million to $3 million annually. Three years ago, instead of spending the money on regular care and maintenance, a credit programme was put in place and loans were given to factories which in turn employed refugees. The loans are now being repaid.

In 1992, UNHCR initiated a "cross-mandate approach" to the massive assistance programme needed in eastern Ethiopia - the most depressed region in the country - to ease the situation of the Somali refugees, Ethiopian returnees and internally displaced people who were all destitute. At that time, food was scarce and bandits hijacked relief trucks, which made the delivery of aid risky in the area. The UNHCR efforts called for the pooling of resources of all U.N. agencies so that aid could be delivered not only to the refugee camps, but to all the communities benefiting from U.N. help. However, lack of funding hobbled the project and only UNHCR, the UN Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia and the World Food Programme remain there with a regular aid project.

Also in 1992 in Kenya, UNHCR drew up a plan for cross border operations to stem the flow of Somali refugees into the country. The objective was to stabilize the situation inside Somalia and create conditions for the eventual return and reintegration of the refugees. UNHCR established five outposts in the southern region of Somalia. They monitored the security situation there, distributed food and shelter materials and supervised the repair of basic economic and physical infrastructure. Quick impact projects, or QIPs, were initiated. They included the rehabilitation of water supply systems, digging of new wells, repair of roads, sanitation, health, education and government facilities, agriculture, livestock, forestry and other productive activities. The QIPs were inspired by the highly successful self-sufficiency programmes for refugees in Latin America in the 1980s and are now incorporated in UNHCR's activities in most refugee situations.

In Uganda, the government has made available some 5,000 square kilometres of land to help Sudanese refugees rebuild their lives by integrating with local communities. UNHCR provides development assistance, such as roads, wells and health centres, to benefit the resettled refugees and local people alike. There are some 400,000 Sudanese refugees from Africa's longest running civil war. Their plight has been overshadowed by other conflicts that have hit the headlines. So they have been scraping along with U.N. assistance in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Zaire and the Central African Republic.

"There is no way you can think of sending back or encouraging people to go back to a situation which they ran away from. You see, the situation in southern Sudan has been permanently volatile. So, we thought that instead of always hoping to ask for food from the international community or from UNHCR, why don't we think in terms of integrating many of these refugees," said Jaber Bidandi-Ssali, Uganda's minister of local government.

Uganda's generosity is rare in a world where compassion for refugees appears to be waning - even in Africa, which is known for its liberal asylum policies. Countries are paying a heavy price for hosting massive numbers of refugees and are increasingly seeking compensation that UNHCR and the international community can never fully cover.

Last January, UNHCR and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) proposed a $70 million programme to repair damage to the environment and infrastructure in the Great Lakes region countries with Rwandan refugees. The programme aims to stop unregulated wood cutting and encourages reforestation while creating productive income-generating opportunities for both refugees and local residents. It also involves the rehabilitation of roads, ports and communication facilities, health and education services and income-generation. Several small projects have been undertaken on a bilateral basis, but implementation has been slow. UNHCR is even having difficulty raising money for its basic assistance programmes this year.

The idea of linking refugee assistance with development aid has been considered by UNHCR since the 1980s, when an international conference of African countries raised, for the first time, the issue of repairing refugee damage to local infrastructure. In addition to purely humanitarian aid, UNHCR was urged to promote some development projects in the host communities in cooperation with development-oriented agencies. In 1986, UNHCR launched a 12-year project in Pakistan designed to create employment for refugees and Pakistanis and rehabilitate damage to the country's forests, roads and water facilities. UNHCR raised $86 million for this project, which was administered by the World Bank. The project has paid off and new funding is being sought by the government to consolidate the assets created in refugee areas. A similar project was successfully carried out jointly by UNHCR and IFAD (International Fund for Agriultural Development) in Iran between 1989 and 1995.

In the era of superpower spheres of interest, the project in Pakistan was attractive to donors. But in countries with little or no strategic interest, donors are hard to find. For UNHCR, today's challenge is to find creative ways to make refugees and their host communities self-reliant while making programmes cost effective and self-sustaining. Says Mebtouche: "We have to prod the refugees, make them productive. You cannot continue to perpetuate a cult of dependency until it hits refugees and the organization that this cannot go on indefinitely and then you face the question: 'When do you stop ?'"

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 105 (1996)