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Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (The international year of the family) - Helping families help themselves

Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (The international year of the family) - Helping families help themselves
Refugees (Issue 95, I - 1994)

1 March 1994
Tens of thousands of refugee families have benefitted from a variety of UNHCR self-sufficiency programmes around the world.

Tens of thousands of refugee families have benefitted from a variety of UNHCR self-sufficiency programmes around the world.

By Fernando Del Mundo

While the guns of war echoed in the distance, seeds were planted in the fields around the central Bosnian city of Zenica in the spring of 1993 to help feed victims of a cruel war.

Even in besieged Sarajevo, backyards, parks and balconies were turned - wherever possible - into family vegetable gardens under a food production programme initiated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The programme is being repeated again this year over a wide area of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

From the battlefields of the former Yugoslavia to urban centres in Brazil, UNHCR is putting in place projects to help families who are caught in conflicts or who have fled them.

"The programmes are part of an effort to give dignity to these people by making them productive and self-supporting as soon as possible even in tough conditions," says Larbi Mebtouche, UNHCR's senior economist and planner.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina, some 70,000 family seed packages were distributed to communities hosting refugees and displaced people. Six months later, eight to 10 times the seed inputs in potatoes, onions and vegetables were harvested. In the Zenica region, for example, residents gathered 11,600 to 13,500 tons of food from the 1,350 tons of seed planted.

While food is urgently required in conflict zones, jobs and incomes are the compelling need of refugees in countries of asylum as well as of those who have recently returned to their often devastated homelands. UNHCR has been addressing all of these issues.

Mebtouche says local integration projects crafted to make refugee and returnee families in rural or urban settings become self-sufficient have been in place since the early 1980s, primarily in Africa. The success of each initiative depends on the ingenuity of the beneficiaries, the availability of funds and the ability of UNHCR to respond creatively in a given situation in addition to its usual care and maintenance programmes.

Quick Impact Projects, or QIPs, were introduced in Nicaragua in 1991 to support people returning to their ravaged country after a decade of civil war. The short-term projects involved provision of water, health and sanitation facilities, repair of roads and bridges, and income-generation activities. The QIP initiative has been replicated elsewhere in Asia and Africa.

In Pakistan, UNHCR has an $86.6 million programme to repair damage to the environment by the presence of one of the world's largest refugee groups. The programme enlists Afghan refugees as labourers, providing them with regular income. Since it was started in 1984, thousands of acres of land in the Northwest Frontier Province and Baluchistan have been planted with eucalyptus, acacia or casuarina trees. They are interspersed with indigenous "mazri" dwarf palm - a versatile cash crop with fronds that are used in making mats, baskets and caps. Needy families are paid to grow seedlings in aerated plastic bags in nurseries.

UNHCR has a similar environmental rehabilitation programme on a smaller scale in Malawi, a tiny African country crammed with nearly a million Mozambican refugees.

Training programmes are also available in Pakistan and Malawi to enable refugees to gain basic skills that can be applied in the rehabilitation and development of their war-devastated countries on their return.

In Pakistan, the International Rescue Committee, which receives funds from UNHCR, offers interest-free credit to vulnerable people like Sahib Jamala, an Afghan refugee widow with a family of six. Since she lost her husband four years ago, Sahib Jamala had become entirely dependent on her husband's relatives who also are refugees in Pakistan. Thanks to the IRC credit, she managed to buy a goat to start a small breeding business and supplies her family and relatives with milk.

In Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Zaire, Ghana, Kenya, Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire, UNHCR funded poultry farms, tailoring shops, palm-kernel entrepreneurs and sugarcane traders in an effort to make refugee families self-sufficient. In Brazil's highly urbanized cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, some 1,400 asylum seekers, mainly from Angola, are beneficiaries of UNHCR's training and job placement schemes.

Tens of thousands of people have gained from UNHCR's self-sufficiency programmes, and all have something in common, says Mebtouche: hard work and a desire to help their families even under the most difficult of conditions.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 95 (1994)