Despite challenges many urban refugees are making a future for themselves and their families, Johannesburg (Peter Balleis SJ/JRS)
Johannesburg, 10 February 2012 – In most of our minds the word refugee conjures up images of rows upon rows of tents or mud shelters stretching out to a dusty horizon. This tent city image further lends itself to a sense of temporariness and the associated idea that these people are awaiting rescue in the form of rapid resettlement to a western country or perhaps return to their homeland.

In the last ten years however the world of the refugee has rapidly shifted. The refugee camp is now the exception rather than the rule: 58 per cent of all refugees reside in urban areas, mostly in the rapidly growing slums of the cities in the global south.

Johannesburg hosts an estimated 450,000 people in refugee or refugee like situations. This is the largest concentration of refugees anywhere. Damascus, Cairo, Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Amman, Bangkok and many others also host large forced migrant populations.

The significance of this shift

It must be said that life in a refugee camp is never rosy, and the duration of stays in camps has been steadily increasing, Camps can be a hotbed of illness, violence and boredom. Most inhabitants adopt coping mechanisms for these long stays that vary from the clever to the criminal.

The crucial factor is that, without a firm plan for onward movement, camps essentially trade the right to safety with a whole host of other human rights — to movement, to gainful employment, to education and so on. Without an 'exit plan' there is little to live for.

Nonetheless camps do generally provide basic food and shelter and a semblance of safety. For the urban refugee there is no such security.

In some cities the UNHCR or a local NGO provides money for shelter and food for three months only. In that time, the urban refugee is expected to: register with the authorities and begin processing their refugee case; gain a working knowledge of a new language; train themselves so they can find sustainable employment; and locate new accommodation, while at the same time keeping their documentation in order, their family fed, children in schools, sick people looked after and so on.

All this while negotiating a complex social transition into an often-hostile local population in an urban area characterised by high crime rates and crumbling infrastructure.

Little wonder that many become prey to criminal activity. Young women are forced into transactional sex to help pay the rent, men are forced to pay bribes to prevent their hard won hawkers permits being torn up by local police. Many work illegally in informal jobs prone to all kinds of exploitation.

The fact that some of these people do make a transition of sorts says much about the capacities within many refugee populations. In Johannesburg 75 per cent  of the forced migrant population is economically active, 35 per cent to a degree that they are able to send remittances to relative back home; 83  per cent of Somalis and around 63 per cent Congolese speak English.

Surely this is a good news story. It indicates a new manner in which those considering assisting such populations must operate. Clearly the old camp provision-of-service mentality is neither applicable nor affordable. With leadership, imagination and in a spirit of cooperation the capacities within these populations must be brought to bear.

Yet governments, perhaps fearful of the long-term impact of local integration of large groups of immigrants on local employment, increasingly restrict refugees' rights.

In South Africa, the education system has in recent times relied heavily on skilled Zimbabwean teachers. This can be seen as a problem, or a short-term solution to an identified skills gap. What is to stop Zimbabweans being employed in training roles to capacitate further the teaching population?

Regrettably there is now talk of eliminating the asylum seekers' right to work, a short-term measure which will end up costing the South African community more in the long term as it tries to cope with the humanitarian crisis that is likely to result.

It is true refugee movements can be unpredictable, making it difficult to frame policy. But more recognition could be given to the skills base of refugee populations and their capacity to adapt to new situations quickly. In such cases governments have a clear task to educate the local population of the overall benefits that can accrue as, at the end of the day, everyone stands to benefit.

There is a need for leadership. Let us not be misled: forced migrants' anonymity in the cities of the global south must not be construed as a reason for the international community — particularly its wealthier members — to abrogate further its responsibilities. But new ways to do this must be found.

The first step is for people to come together to enable the story of the urban refugee to break the chains of anonymity and become widely heard.

The second is for refugee community groups, local organisations and international players to learn to work together, each bringing their unique set of capacities to the table.

David Holdcroft SJ, JRS Southern Africa Director

Countries Related to this Region
South Africa, Syria, Thailand, Uganda