Saturday 24 August 2019

Ray Jordan: 'Why it's time to broaden our image of refugees'

Developing countries already enduring economic problems bear brunt of refugee crisis, writes Ray Jordan

In western Uganda, Self-Help Africa trains producers in harvesting, drying, bagging and bulking maize (stock photo)
In western Uganda, Self-Help Africa trains producers in harvesting, drying, bagging and bulking maize (stock photo)

Somebody, somewhere lost their home in the time it took you to read this sentence. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), at least one person is forcibly displaced somewhere in the world every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution.

Here in the west, the story that's frequently told is all about the flight of economically desperate people who have risked life and limb in search of a better life in Europe. Populist political parties then seek to exploit these stories to their own ends by stoking worries among voters living in societies with very few refugees.

The reality is that developing countries already enduring economic problems bear the brunt of the refugee crisis. Countries in sub-Saharan Africa host more than one quarter of the world's refugee population. Over 18m people in the region are cared for by the UNHCR and these numbers have been climbing, as conflict, climate change and increasing pressure on land and resources drives people from their homes and their countries.

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My organisation, Self Help Africa, is one of many agencies working to improve matters. We are Ireland's largest overseas development organisation that specialises in enterprise and agriculture development. Currently, we are working in eight core African countries, tackling poverty and improving the lives of local communities. We work both with our own African staff, and through local partners to undertake a range of development programmes amongst rural communities.

Experiences throughout the world have shown that broad-based, productivity-driven agricultural growth can serve as the motor for increasing incomes, improving livelihoods, capitalising the rural economy, and providing the basis for sustainable economic growth.

Finding an appropriate response to Africa's refugee crisis remains difficult but Self Help Africa has embarked on a number of separate development projects which are making a meaningful impact on the lives of thousands of refugees and their families.

From hundreds of examples, let's take 21-year-old Furaha who farms a small plot of land that until recently was bush and scrub.

It took her several months to dig and clear that land but she is now growing groundnuts and rearing a small herd of tethered goats. Furaha's two acres of land is on the fringes of the sprawling Meheba Refugee Camp, a UN-run settlement in the north-west Zambia. Originally intended as a temporary refuge for people fleeing civil war in neighbouring Angola almost 40 years ago, Meheba is one of Africa's oldest refugee settlements and home to almost 25,000 people - roughly the same number of inhabitants as Kilkenny.

Where Furaha lives in north-western Zambia, Self Help Africa launched a 'graduation project' designed to provide a long-term future for refugee families as small-scale farmers and business owners. Householders such as Furaha were provided with training, seed, livestock and other skills, and on land they were given in the local district they were supported with different crop and livestock activities, and helped to establish income generating opportunities and small businesses.

About 2,500km north of this refugee camp, another Self Help Africa training project is allowing thousands of small farmers in western Uganda to sell their grain to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) which is the single largest buyer of the food staple in the country.

Producers receive training in harvesting, drying, bagging and bulking maize.

This means that the grain they produce meets the standard, for moisture content and cleanliness, required by the UN agencies to feed refugees in a country where upwards of one million people live in displacement camps.

By adding value to the supply chain, farmers are earning more from one of their most important food crops. Amongst these are once-dependent refugee families who have been provided with land and are now farmers who are helping to solve a problem rather than add to it.

As the world marks World Refugee Day this week (Thursday), it is time to broaden our image of refugees. Refugees include those who risk their lives by crossing the Mediterranean or those living in direct provision here in Ireland. Refugees include Albert Einstein and Anne Frank.

Many other refugees are unknown and unseen by us; struggling to make ends meet in camps in distant countries. They need practical help and new skills to make new lives in their new homes. The experience of Self Help Africa, and other organisations, is that this is possible. It happens every day. Being forced into exile is traumatic but it can be a new beginning if we help.

Ray Jordan is chief executive of Self Help Africa.

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