by Olivia Woldemikael

The label of refugee is deceptive—it often hides more about a person than it reveals. In particular, when we refer to the ‘21 million refugees’ or ‘the refugee crisis’, we inadvertently strip people of their individuality and reduce their diverse lived experiences to the single narrative of displacement. Refugees, as a whole, have been so dehumanised that it is palatable to enclose them in congested camps and detention centres, to deny them access to education and opportunities to work, and to want to keep them out of our countries like a plague. Nothing has made this clearer to me than a meeting with one African refugee, in particular.

Refugee shelters in the Dadaab refugee camp in Northern Kenya (Wikicommons)

This past May, I reconnected with my cousin, Genet*, on a dreary, spring day in the historic heart of Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia. It had been over ten years since I last saw her and almost two years since she paid a human smuggler, or “pilot,” as they’re called by Eritreans, to help her flee the country. At age 23, she had graduated college and had begun her national service, which is an indefinite term of nearly unpaid labour, compulsory for all youth in Eritrea. Unable to endure a life devoid of personal choice, she disappeared from her family’s home without a word to anyone, knowing that she might never see her parents and siblings for decades. She crossed the firmly sealed Eritrea-Ethiopia border and reappeared on the other side as a refugee.

When she first arrived in Ethiopia in 2015, Genet lived in a refugee camp in the North awaiting official refugee status. The conditions she described were standard for a refugee camp, on the spectrum of spartan to miserable. She slept in a big tent with a group of other Eritreans, waited in line for food rations, and had to use bathrooms that were beneath any human being’s dignity. Becoming a refugee is the greatest equaliser: everyone—farmer, student, doctor, beggar, is meted out the same treatment.

The hardest part, Genet said, was not the overcrowding or even the monotony of her diet, but the tedium of daily life. “There was nothing to do at the camp,” she complained, “If you had a book, no matter how long it was, 300 or 500 pages, you’d finish it in two days.”

A refugee home in Bidi Bidi refugee camp in Uganda, which has become the largest refugee camp in the world housing primary South Sudanese (Trocaire/Flickr)

As incensed as I was at hearing about Genet’s treatment, her life was not so different from the lives of many refugees in Uganda, where I had been working in the aid sector for the past two years. In my professional and personal life there, I frequently interacted with refugees and had visited several refugee settlements. Yet, Uganda, has been praised by Western newspapers as the “best place in the world for refugees.” While the government of Uganda promises some of the most progressive policies—an open border, the freedom to work and move outside of the settlements, and the right to a small piece of land—the daily life of many refugees is marked by the same stagnation Genet described. There are some notable differences. Unlike in Ethiopia, refugees in Uganda live in makeshift houses rather than tents, are able to farm, and can be legally employed. Still, I challenge anyone to visit a Ugandan refugee settlement and tell me they would want any of their family members to live there.

Because refugees have no choice but to bear the conditions of the refugee camps, we as Westerners, wrongly think that they’re bearable. This is partially due to an unconscious assumption that refugees from developing countries are all poor or at least accustomed to squalor and discomfort. Genet, like many young Eritrean and other refugees, is from an upper-middle class family in her country. She attended university and speaks fluent English—that she could survive those conditions was not due to a prior familiarity. Rather, it is proof of the fortitude and resolve that an individual possesses when she is hoping to forge a better future.  That Genet could live in a refugee camp is a testament that everyone could if they had no other choice.

In the shadow of the Holocaust, one of the great evils of the 20th century, Stanley Milgram’s notable psychological study showed how the power of authority could suppress personal conscience, overriding individuals’ ethics and compassion. The global treatment of refugees has convinced me that if Milgram had a follow-up experiment in the 21st century, it would explain the casual cruelty people demonstrate in prescribing conditions for others in situations they would never expect themselves or their families to end up in.

A Syrian refugee camp on the Turkish border (Wikicommons)

Calling someone a refugee makes it easy to sympathise with their immense suffering, but hard to truly empathise and imagine ourselves in their situation. Using the word “refugee” obscures the meaning of the term and puts distance between ourselves and the person who is suffering, allowing us to rationalise beyond inhumane treatment, especially by so-called developed countries.

Fortunately for Genet, she was able to leave the camp and live with our relatives in Addis Ababa, where she is now. She still cannot work, officially, but she has found some informal tasks that give her a little spending money and more importantly, purpose. After much heartache and bureaucracy, my family in the US and Canada will most likely be able to help Genet get out of Ethiopia. As Genet’s peers hope to beat the one-out-of-a-hundred odds of resettlement or wait for a shift in policy, those without extra cash or family abroad are indefinitely confined to the refugee camps. On the one hand, it’s not fair that Genet who is no more deserving than any other refugee has an exit only because she is fortunate enough to have relatives abroad. On the other, it is unthinkable that any person who has fled an unlivable situation—war, political repression, persecution, economic deprivation—should spend the rest of their life without a future.

Refugees, like all people, should have the right to life beyond mere physical survival. It is not enough to fulfill only their most basic needs: our treatment of refugees should consider their quality of life, their dreams, and their desires. In this current crisis with tens of millions of people around the world forced to leave their homes, conditions for refugees can improve only if their well being becomes a global concern. Instead of hiding behind hollow praise for struggling developing nations like Uganda in order to shirk responsibility, Western countries must assume leadership and provide refugees legal avenues to asylum and resettlement.

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Olivia Woldemikael is a writer and a former humanitarian worker in Uganda with a passion for social justice. Her work focuses on refugees, critical approaches to development, and African politics.
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