How to Make a Difference? First, Understand.

I am a firm believer that in order to be a truly effective advocate on any issue, it’s crucial to really understand the dynamics that you are contending with.

For The Niapele Project this means recognizing that we are in a constant state of learning – as we progress and deepen our involvement with the refugee community of West Africa, we are also attempting to truly understand what the issues are, at their core, so we can better serve the interests of the organizations we work with, and the children they serve.
We are continuously challenged in this extremely complex developing world environment – as a small NGO with limited resources, we try to position ourselves as open, flexible and willing to collaborate as knowledgeable partners.
In Liberia, we are beginning to collaborate with the UNHCR and the Liberian Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (the government agency in charge of coordinating refugee issues) – in spite of our differences with these institutions in the past regarding the way in which Liberian refugees in Ghana were treated, we strongly believe that it will take the collaboration of all key stakeholders to create sustainable strategies for the effective integration of displaced people in Liberia.
(I only wish I was there myself…. sigh… maybe some time down the line!)
In any case, in order to bring deep expertise to the table, The Niapele Project has been working with some of the world’s best universities to develop our research capacity – we just released this study produced by Masters candidates at Sciences Po (my alma mater in Paris), which provides a critical overview of policy options for protracted refugee situations, and we are currently working with the Yale Law School on another study which will outline the international and national legal framework with regards to returning refugee rights in Liberia.
We are really looking forward to 2009 – in spite of the arduous fundraising road ahead, I am full of confidence that The Niapele Project will continue to have a positive impact in the lives of vulnerable refugee children.

Defining "refugees"

I’d like to preface this post by reminding you what the global “refugee context” is: 

I’ve mentioned before, in some posts here, how the legal definition of “refugee” has become obsolete in the 21st century. While on paper, the definition seems quite broad, it fails to include dozens of millions of displaced people, who, as a result, see their most fundamental human rights violated. There are 16 million refugees in the world today who fall under the mandate of the UNHCR or the UNRWA (4.6 million Palestinian refugees, out of the 16 million fall under the latter’s jurisdiction). In addition to these already staggering numbers, there are an estimated 51 million displaced people who do not fall under any international legal mandate. 51 million. And that is not taking into account the vast numbers of people who flee their homelands but are never able to register as a refugee or an asylum seeker, for reasons as varied as inability to read, write and understand the process involved or too much psychological trauma to handle complicated, inefficient bureaucratic processes. It’s most likely impossible to know exactly how many people fall into the latter category – but I would say there are easily a few million displaced people who have not been taken into account by the UNHCR statistics. 
Anyway, this leads me up to the story of the day, that of Pape Mbaye, a gay Senegalese man who was granted refugee status in the US on the basis of his facing persecution due to his sexual orientation. The article (unfortunately) barely touches upon the novelty of this type of refugee case, merely noting that only “a handful” of similar cases arose in the past, and is focused on the plight of homosexuals in West Africa (as far as my experience goes, I haven’t encountered a single West African who is tolerant of homosexuality…. sadly).
It is nonetheless noteworthy that Mbaye was able to receive refugee status on those grounds – and given that his well-being was genuinely endangered by conservative zealotry, I think it’s fantastic that the US granted him refugee status. However, for every Mbaye, there are 100,000 (or more) individuals who yearn to live in a different country, far away from the misery, oppression and persecution that pervades their daily lives. What of them? What of the hundreds of Africans who end up ship wrecked on the coasts of the small southern European island of Malta? Why must they languish endlessly in precarious conditions? What of the thousands of Liberian refugees in Ghana who cannot avail themselves of the inadequate amount of assistance that the UNHCR is able to provide them with? 
The fight for the rights of those who suffer is far from over….

There are rights, and then there are refugee rights

I attended the court hearing for the case of the 23 detained Liberian women and children today. The 16 women and 7 children (ages 4 to 17 years) are being held by the National Immigration Service (NIS) of Ghana and are facing deportation. The claim by the government is that they are illegal immigrants, and pose a national security threat, and, as such, should be deported.

This is the 2nd hearing – apparently, according to a journalist present at the first one, the NIS had already chartered a plane to deport the detainees, confident that the first hearing would be the last and a judgment in their favor handed down. Fortunately, the judge called off any further deportation until the case was resolved – and that called for additional arguments from both sides.

Basically, the prosecution (human rights lawyers) are challenging the claim that the detainees are illegal immigrants – instead, they categorize them as “undocumented refugees”. People arrived in Buduburam in waves, and while most were either registered through the UNHCR or accepted on a prima facie basis, some applied for refugee status as asylum seekers, only to see their claim fall through the cracks, being neither rejected nor accepted. Furthermore, the prosecution argues that the undocumented refugees can derive refugee status from their family members if the latter are officially recognized as such. That, to me, is a crucial point.

Indeed, one of the challenges we are faced with, as organizations and individuals engaged with refugee communities, is the issue of how to offer protection and support to undocumented refugees. It seems unjust that because of some bureaucratic failure to process claims, groups of people should be left with absolutely no protection whatsoever. In fact, the defense counsel on the behalf of the Ghanaian gov. said : “If they are unregistered, then they have no status, and they have no rights“(emphasis added) She went on to say that “rights are not absolute” and that refugees “ought to go home”.

In any case, these people are the ones who are supposed to leave Ghana for their home country with zero assistance – keep in mind these people are barely able to sustain themselves on a daily basis, so expecting them to be able to move and re-establish in another country (which is 2 international borders away) is a big stretch. These are people who were already forced to abandon their lives and families during the war, and who managed to recreate some sort of normal life for themselves as refugees. To ask them to leave everything behind again…. ? I realize that people’s rights are trampled all over the world on a daily basis, but I am just shocked at the total lack of institutional or large scale support these people receive (none). For instance, there was no UNHCR representative at the court hearing today – even though the outcome of this trial is absolutely crucial for the refugee community in Ghana. UNHCR — Is it that hard to send a rep to a trial?? Even your intern could have gone!

Meanwhile, in the Buduburam settlement, those who are registered with the UNHCR are signing up for voluntary repatriation, worried about the conditions that they will face when returning to Liberia… Again, this community has no higher authority to turn to – not their own government, not the UNHCR, not the “international community”. Of course, large scale violence did not erupt, and no one died – I suppose if that had happened, you would have seen a lot more attention given to the issue. Why does it have to come to this to mobilize the world’s attention? All the lofty rhetoric about “prevention” rather than “intervention”…. Empty shells that make policy makers feel good about themselves, but seem to be rarely adopted in practice.

The verdict for the trial is April 24th – looking forward to it.

Back in Budu

Been back in the Buduburam settlement for a little over a week now, and it seems clear that we arrived just as tensions were easing between the different parties. While the overt crisis seems to be under control now, there are still many, many unresolved issues at a number of different levels. The refugee community receives only limited, fragmented information concerning their future and the decisions made on their behalf, which leads to the elaboration of many rumors and theories that only contribute to increasing anxiety and uncertainty.

The UNHCR is essentially nowhere to be seen, found or heard – at least, not in the field. Voluntary repatriation has been reopened for registered refugees (it had been closed in August 2007), but to all the unregistered refugees living in Buduburam, going “home” seems like an almost unsurmountable hurdle… For those who can be repatriated, they are all very worried about leaving with only 20kg of belongings and $100 – imagine if you had to rebuild your life (again) with only this, and in extremely difficult conditions (Liberia, while it is in the process of post-conflict reconstruction, still faces enormous challenges)

I’m going to the court hearing of the remaining 22 women (including 6 children aged between 4 and 11) who are in custody of Immigration Services on Monday. Since internet access is – at best – frustrating in Buduburam, I will probably update then….