Stuck between a rock and a hard place – part 2

Last post, I discussed why repatriation, which is favored by the UNHCR as a “durable solution” for dealing with refugees, is a flawed policy.

“Securing durable solutions for refugees is a principal goal of international protection and part of UNHCR’s mandate. These solutions can take three different forms: (i) voluntary repatriation to the home country; (ii) resettlement in another country or; (iii) finding appropriate permanent integration mechanisms in the host country[…]

Among the three durable solutions, voluntary repatriation is the one which generally benefits the largest number of refugees. Resettlement of refugees is a key protection tool and a significant burden and responsibility-sharing mechanism. Local integration, the third durable solution, is a legal, socio-economic and political process by which refugees progressively become part of the host society.”(Source: 2006 UNHCR Statistical Report – released December 2007)

As I previously discussed, voluntary repatriation sounds great in theory, and can be a pragmatic solution in practice, but it fails to recognize and deal with the psychological, social trauma of displaced populations. Celina and Kristin both recently brought up issues related to resettlement of refugees in third countries – a fascinating topic.

Recently, Dave Eggers shed light on this topic with his book “What is the What”, which retraces the life of Valentino Achak Deng from peaceful times in Southern Sudan as a boy, to becoming an orphan refugee, to being a resettled refugee in the United States. If you haven’t read it yet, you should. You can read a review here.


Thousands of Liberian refugees were resettled to the United States since the 1990s, partly because of the natural connection between the United States and Liberia – which was founded by freed American slaves – , and partly because the United States has a tradition of taking in refugees and asylum seekers from around the world.

note: another incredible book about resettling in the United States, which has nothing to do with Liberians, but is absolutely fantastic, is “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down”. It depicts how difficult integration can be for foreigners – in this particular book, it focuses on the strikingly different cultural approaches to medicine, illness and healing. You can read a review here

Many of the Liberian refugees that have been resettled in the United States face some daunting challenges – first of all, the US government has decided to place these refugees in what seems to be the most random of communities – Minnesota is now home to one of the largest Liberian communities in the US, and places such as Philadelphia, Tennessee and Georgia are also hosting this influx of refugees.

The first and foremost issue encountered by resettled refugees is to find a way to integrate into their host communities – after years of living in the direst of circumstances, dealing with murder, rape, and other atrocities, refugees are parachuted into a new and unknown society. Thankfully, a lot of Liberians being resettled already have a family member present in the United States (family reunification is one of the few reasons for which asylum or resettlement is granted).

Nonetheless, as this investigative report highlights, integration in local communities is far from easy – Liberian refugees have suffered greatly from discrimination, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, seeing as most foreigners from developing nations arriving in Western countries usually receive poor treatment.

Excerpt: “An African-American woman [in South-West Philly] walked up to one of them [ Liberian refugee child], picked up his hand and said: “My God, how did you get so black?”
(Listen to the full NPR report here: “Liberian Youth in US Find Threat from New Violence“)

In spite of the difficulties of adjusting to the “American Way of Life”, most Liberians in the United States have been there for years, and have successfully managed to rebuild their lives – a lot are home owners, have jobs, pay taxes and play a vital role in enriching the micro economic life of the communities which host them. Now, as the war in Liberia has subsided, the United States is getting ready to lift the Temporary Protection Status (TPS) which it has given to Liberian refugees (this has already happened to Sierra Leonan refugees in the 90s).

Refugees coming to the US are not given permanent residence, or citizenship, nor do they have actual refugee status – the TPS, as NPR notes, “first granted in 1991, as Liberia descended into a decade of brutal conflict, [is] something of a fallback for those who don’t qualify as a refugee and can’t obtain a permanent green card through marriage or work.”

As I write this, it seems that this matter has not been resolved – a bi-partisan bill was introduced in Congress in April 2007 to extend the TPS for Liberian refugees, but it apparently has not been voted on. Looking at legislative records, it seems that similar legislation has been introduced year after year, always ending up “dead” – for details, click here or here.

It seems really ridiculous (and I’m weighing my words) to want to deport these people, for a variety of reasons.

First of all, some of them have been in the United States for literally decades, have American-born children, and are fully integrated into their local communities. How dare we uproot these people again? How dare we try to tear them away from their lives? And to go back to what??

Secondly, as is pointed out in this NPR report, the livelihoods of entire Liberian communities in West Africa depend on the remittances and goods sent from family members resettled in Western countries, particularly the US. In Buduburam, there are two (not one – TWO) Western Union branches, through which transit the only stable form of income for most of the refugees. There are two types of refugees in Buduburam: those with and those without relatives in Western countries, and the difference is striking. Depriving these refugees of this vital lifeline is tantamount to depriving them of their right to life. The Liberian government estimates that remittances to Liberia from the United States average $6 million each month, according to Charles Minor, the country’s ambassador in Washington.

Thirdly, and this is the kicker – this is what Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia had to say about sending resettled refugees back to Liberia:

Liberia needs time to rebuild and recover and is unfortunately not in a position to absorb and provide for an influx of refugees”
(read full article here)

And the Liberian ambassador to Washington adds that

“This could jeopardize our progress.
We don’t have the housing stock, the schools or the medical facilities to support this many returnees as yet
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has made job creation a top priority, Minor said, but the country cannot yet provide employment for thousands of returning Liberians, even if they have skills and experience.

(In case you weren’t already convinced that Liberia was in no way able to take in tens of thousands of returning refugees from previous posts (like this one, or this one), then check out this report discussing the utter lack of trash collection in Liberia.)


Now, for those who have been following my “meanderings”, don’t you find this slightly ironic?
On the one hand, we are encouraging Liberian refugees in Ghana to return home to Liberia (because it’s “fine” there now), and on the other hand, the Liberian Head of State recognizes that Liberia is in no position to absorb an influx of refugees.

There are about 5,000 Liberians risking deportation in the United States.
There are about 40,000 Liberians in Ghana.

So the UNHCR and other international organizations, as well as donors, are no longer willing to spend their money on Liberians displaced in West Africa, and want them to return to their home country, because it “benefits the largest number of refugees”. Meanwhile, the government of Liberia is acting schizophrenic, by both supporting this first policy, and explaining to the United States that it’s in no position to absorb a measly few thousand Liberians (who are much more well off than their relatives who stayed in West Africa).

That makes no sense.
It simply doesn’t.

Meanwhile, thousands of refugees in Ghana are still hoping to be resettled. They call it “travelling”, and a lot of them think it will soon be their turn – because their aunt/cousin/sister is there, because God wants it that way, because that is the only possibility they are willing or capable to envisage… There are so many reasons why Liberian refugees cling on to this possibility.

As time passes, the likelihood of resettlement gets slimmer and slimmer, but, nonetheless, Liberians still believe.

I have seen the UNHCR boards in Buduburam notifying the community that resettlement to the United States was officially over, but still – people believe.

There is a total lack of appropriate socio-cultural communication between the UNHCR and other relevant authorities, and the refugee population. This absolutely needs to change if long term, durable solutions are to be created for Liberian (and other) refugees who find themselves in protracted situations, which, apparently, is what the UNHCR is trying to do…

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