Liberians Go Home?

Via African Loft:

Thousands of Liberians living in the United States face deportation at the end of next month. This follows the expiry of the temporary immigration status granted to 14,000 Liberians who fled the civil war in the 1990s. The US government extended their temporary protection status during Charles Taylor’s dictatorship in Liberia. But after he was toppled in 2006, and a new government installed the following year, they were given 18 months to return home. Senator Jack Reed from Rhode Island, which has a large Liberian community, said many of them have become an important part of the community and should be allowed to stay. But Dan Stein, president of an NGO for immigration reform, said it is time for them to go back and rebuild their country.

Here is CNN clip on the story:

I find ludicrous the argument that this is a “mockery” of short term asylum… These Liberian families should be given credit for integrating and contributing to the elaboration of a diverse American society. This is how History happens – people migrate for varied reasons (including war) and establish themselves in new places. Why fight it?!

In addition, on a more pragmatic level, Liberians in Liberia rely on the vital lifeline provided by family members abroad. With 14,000 Liberians in the US, you can be sure that their wealth is spread deep into family circles back home. In fact, remittances from the US to Liberia averaged $6 million/month in 2007. (see previous post for background)

Of course, I’m sure the fact that some (but not all) Liberians in the US have been linked to gang violence and other societal woes is informing the opinions of deportation advocates. But what community doesn’t have its fringe? There are plenty of Liberians in the US who have productive, happy lives, and for who returning to Liberia means leaving schools and healthcare for their children (services they have earned through their hard work and contributions to the IRS). As the CNN report notes, some of these families have children who were born in the US and have US citizenship – we can at least hope that good immigration lawyers will be able to keep these families together.

It’s refreshing to see politicians such as Sen. Jack Reed from Rhode Island take a stand for the Liberians.

Intersecting tragedies

At last, an update on this blog. It’s not that I’m lazy, but I often feel like everything’s already been said and that I’m preaching to the choir. There are dozens of stories that inspire me to write, but I have a difficult finding something to say that I don’t find redundant. For instance, this story on “personal terrorism” (warming: photo not for the faint hearted)really shook me to the core when I first read it a few weeks back, and I have been pondering a post about it, but what can I say other than the fact that I find it deeply offensive, sad and backward… Sort of like this story about a 13 year old girl who was stoned to death because SHE was raped. I am – as we all are, at least those reading this blog – appalled that this sort of medieval, senseless and cruel violence against women still exists in this supposedly “modern” world. 

In any case, I have been watching all sorts of retrospectives and “year in review” programs on the various news channels on my parents’ cable (god bless satellite television), and when it’s all strung together, like a chain of very dark pearls, one really gets a sense of a flailing modern civilization. Sure, we’ve elected an amazing individual to the highest office in the land in the United States, but we have also witnessed a number of horrendous natural tragedies (the typhoon in Burma and the earthquakes in China claiming hundreds of thousands of lives each), ever continuing violence and hatred in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Colombia… everywhere else…, a financial crisis of incomprehensible proportions (1000s of billions of dollars later, we will have fixed nothing), and, of course, we continue to witness the destruction of this planet. 
I was asked a few months ago to investigate the nexus of climate change, sustainable development and diplomacy – a broad topic, indeed. The focus, because of my background, was to be on “climate refugees”, which sounds like something from some sort of sci-fi movie, but is actually becoming a reality to contend with. Because of my new job and constant stress of running out of money for The Niapele Project, my mind has been consumed and I haven’t had a chance to delve into this topic. But watching one of those fascinating (yet frigthening) retrospectives on France 24 last night (France 24 is France’s response to CNN and BBC…. ), I saw a segment on the effects of climate change on a small group of islands called Carteret Islands.
This small group of islands, in my mind, symbolize the coming intersection of tragedies. We are used to thinking about climate change in a separate realm from man-made wars. Natural disasters have been, for some time, hermetically considered from the rest of the problems that affect humanity. I haven’t been able to find this again, but back in 2004, when the tsunami hit large swaths of Asia, and billions of dollars of aid poured in quasi instantly, a cartoon was published showing a couple African children in rags, watching a plane fly overhead with the words “Humanitarian Aid” written on it, and the following words appearing in a bubble above one of the kids: “Too bad we didn’t get hit”. We tend to separate suffering caused by other men and suffering caused by nature, as if the victims were true victims in one case, but not the other.
The people living in the Carteret Islands are among the world’s first “climate refugees“, and their home is slated to disappear in the oceans – forever – in the next 10 years or so (although predictions vary, clearly, like a lot of the other island states in the Pacific, the Carteret Islands’ fate is essentially sealed). Island nations have been among the first to call for concerted global action to deal with the issue of climate change – for them, it’s a matter of simple survival. Cynics might argue that these islands should not be inhabited in the first place, similarly to places like New Orleans or Holland or Venice. But the future of communities who live in these places has been compromised by humanity’s destructive behavior. 
Bangladesh – one of the world’s poorest and most populated countries – is also facing intractable challenges due to climate change.

Melting glaciers in the Himalayas are already causing sea levels to rise here, and scientists say Bangladesh may lose up to 20 percent of its land by 2030 as a result of flooding. That Bangladesh is among the most vulnerable countries on the planet to climate change is a tragedy for its 150 million people, most of whom are destitute.”

It is a frigthening prospect – rising sea levels and disappearing homelands, leading to mass migrations. While we haven’t yet seen this happen on a massive scale, we are quick to dismiss the impact of environmental destruction and climate related causes of war and violence. In the Sudan, desertification is one of the underlying causes which pitted nomad cattle herders against sedentary agriproducers. As the world’s basic natural resources dwindle, and more and more previously habitable land is rendered unfit for human exploitation, we will undoubtedly witness some unprecendent population movements – how and where is hard to say, although clearly island nations, low lying coastal areas and landlocked deserted areas will be on the frontlines. 

I’m fascinated by this intersection of man made and natural tragedies, and curious to see how the world will respond. I’ve already mentioned ad nauseam how the international legal framework that governs the treatment of refugees and displaced people is outdated and unable to address modern challenges. Will the UNHCR blaze trails and design specific legal protections for communities and individuals displaced by environmental catastrophes? If so, when? Probably once it’s too late – it always takes a disaster of monumental proportions for the world to react (world war I was not enough for Europeans to stop killing each other – only at the end of world war II did we devise a system to prevent this from ever happening again [at least in our lifetimes]). 

For 2009, I wish that the leaders of our vulnerable little planet WAKE UP and realize that we are about to self-annihilate. It may even be too late – who knows, really – to reverse the effects of decades of selfish exploitation of the Earth. But the impending intersection of tragedies – the natural ones and the man-made ones – will surely be a wake up call, at some point down the line. 

To close of this post, and this year, I leave you with one of my favorite proverbs (sometimes attributed to ancient African wisdom, other times to Hindu philosophy, but nonetheless a deeply potent thought)

“We did not inherit this world from our forefathers – we are borrowing it from our grandchildren”

Stuck between a rock and a hard place – part 3

Besides resettlement and repatriation, the third – and possibly most elusive – option for refugees is local integration. Interestingly, as I write this, hundreds of Liberian women are protesting in the Buduburam refugee camp, seeking “an immediate redress to [their] plight.” In a fascinating turn of events, Liberian women are calling upon the UNHCR, the government of Ghana and other relevant authorities to help them resettle in Liberia. You can read an article relating these events, as well as the open letter expressing the grievances of this group here. The women are very clear – they are not interested in local integration programs, primarily because of a deeply embedded fear of discrimination. The article relates some gruesome stories about murders and attacks on refugees by the local population – when in Buduburam, I remember hearing such stories, with photos of dismembered individuals to support the claims. The women also seem to believe that true integration is simply not a possibility for them – that Ghanaian society will not be able to accomodate them.

Finally, the women ask for $1000 per household member to return to Liberia, as well as a variety of reintegration programs to be put in place for them as returnees. While the rationale for this stance is understandable from their perspective, I – unfortunately – strongly believe that these demands will never be met by the UNHCR.

I truly admire these women for their tenacity – The Niapele Project field coordinator, Jessica Leombruno, is providing us with updates from the field on a regular basis, and their movement is a peaceful one, done in the pure tradition of non-violent civil action, and, for this, I commend them. We hear how they have been on the main soccer field, day in and day out, for weeks, sleeping outside, even in the rain – their determination and courage is inspiring.

Nonetheless, there are some aspects of this movement that seem counter-productive – for instance, school children are encouraged not to attend school and to “strike” with their mothers, aunts and sisters. While this is a powerful way to express the seriousness of the situation, it is to the detriment of these children, for who education is an absolute necessity. The school that The Niapele Project is partenered with has been shut down due to this strike, and, as a result, the School Feeding Program is not functioning either, depriving the elementary school children of the daily meal they normally receive.

The government of Ghana is now making it clear that it will not tolerate this situation for very long, and is calling on the women to end their strike, which is in breach of the Public Order Act of 1994. Representatives from the UNHCR and the Ghana Refugee Board have apparently met with the women to discuss their grievances (unsuccessfully), and the Liberian Welfare Council (the only officiously elected body that represents the interests of the Liberian refugees in Buduburam), as well as the Camp Manager, have not been supportive. Sadly, it seems that no one is taking their claims very seriously.

At the same time, their demands are not driven by pragmatism, and reflect the lack of understanding of how the institutions that are supposed to represent and support them function. I highly doubt the UNHCR will grant each refugee $1000 (in cash!), and accede to the demands for scholarship programs for returness in Liberia. The UNHCR and the Ghana Refugee Board have been diverting funds and attention towards local integration and self-reliance programs, and towards initiatives benefiting returnees already in Liberia.

Furthermore, the UNHCR budget for programs benefiting Liberian refugees in Ghana is dwindling – from $9.6 million in 2007 to $5 million (projected) for 2009. Only $20,000/year is dedicated to income generation programs… The reality is that the UNHCR will not continue to support this community, and that asking them to spend 10s of millions of dollars on repatriation efforts is not a realistic demand. It’s extremely unfortunate that this movement is not better organized and better informed.

The UNHCR, the Ghana Refugee Board and other relevant authorities cannot stand by idly while this is going on – dialogue has to occur, and these women need to acknowledged. If authorities are going to privilege local integration, then more needs to be done to communicate the benefits of this to refugees. Their concerns about insecurity and discrimination have got to be addressed, and MUCH MORE than $20,000 needs to be spent on creating economic opportunities for them. Perhaps other UN agencies or international NGOs could step in to create large scale micro-credit programs, as well as provide educational and training opportunities for this community. For now, however, apart from the UNHCR and the WFP (whose contributions to improving refugee livelihoods in Buduburam is subpar), there are absolutely no other international organizations providing that sort of service.

It’s very disconcerting to see the complete lack of understanding that exists between the refugees and the institutions that are responsible for them. Local integration could actually benefit the refugees of Buduburam – Ghana is a much more economically dynamic country than Liberia, and opportunities could be created for this community, which already contributes to the vitality of the local economy by patronizing Ghanain businesses.

Perhaps a solution to this would be to provide Liberian refugees with the opportunity to become economically active, and encourage them to save money in order to return to Liberia proudly – on their own dime – when they are ready. This could be a long, difficult process, but it could be the only possible compromise between the stakeholders.

We just got a group of students together at Sciences Po for The Niapele Project- they’re going to be researching and writing a paper defining and benchmarking best practices in protracted refugee crises – how governments and international agencies should structure their disengagement and construct durable solutions based on the reality of each affected community.

The events taking place in Buduburam are testament to the fact that the modus operandi adopted until now by international agencies and the Ghana Refugee Board needs to evolve – more consultations with the local population, better information and communication, as well as more implication of the refugees in identifying and implementing solutions, are vital.

“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”
~ Margaret Thatcher

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…