Telling Refugees’ Stories: The Voices Hidden Behind the Panic

How do refugees and other forced migrants impact their host communities? Do they take local jobs? Are they reliant on aid? How do r

Neema, a Congolese refugee running a wholesale jewelry shop with her husband in Kampala (Photo by Flavie Halais, used with permission).

Neema, a Congolese refugee running a wholesale jewelry shop with her husband in Kampala (Photo by Flavie Halais, used with permission).

efugees around the world maintain livelihoods in the face of insecurity, instability and precarity? The Refugee Economics project is a multi-site reporting project headed by Montreal-based journalist Flavie Halais that seeks to answer some of these difficult and yet tremendously important questions.

The project is ambitious in its aims and connects with real people on the ground in East Africa to tell the stories of displaced people who are entrepreneurs in their own right and make measurable contributions to their new societies. The project investigates the impacts on the hosting countries, and the opportunities that can come out of forced migration and new forms of social integration.

Data collection is well underway, with fieldwork conducted in Uganda in March. Much of the preliminary data confirms already known issues affecting a large number of forced migrants in the region. Security, health and discrimination continue to be identified as major barriers to the pursuit of economic coping strategies and other forms of self-reliance. Researchers have raised these issues for years, yet no practical improvements appear to be made.

In the face of these challenges, almost all refugees survive with no assistance from UN agencies, the government or NGOs. Refugee youth groups and other community-based organisations (CBOs) operate with no top-down support or funding from the international community. While there are many high-level discussions from refugee experts about how to best support CBOs, particularly in urban settings, this is also identified by the Refugee Economics project as an area that requires further attention and support. The narratives emerging from these reporting visits provide an empowered view of refugees and forced migrants as capable, resilient entrepreneurs able to facilitate their own survival in spite of the hostile conditions they face. *

Further research is in progress in Kenya. The Refugee Economics project found through interviews that many refugees in Eastleigh, a suburb of Nairobi, Kenya, are so afraid of police harassment that they modify their schedules and avoid being out at night, so as to not be targeted. *  This restricted movement impacts their ability to fully participate in the economy, limiting their trade and entrepreneurship to daylight hours. Nevertheless, refugees in the area persevere and stimulate economic activity in the area by day, working in malls and running their own businesses. *

For many refugees, the situation in Kakuma Refugee Camp (Kenya) is rapidly deteriorating. A recently imposed curfew and reported harassment by the host community in neighbouring Turkana county endanger the hard-won economic and social independence of refugees. In response to this, refugees are mobilising groups within their community to patrol for self-defence purposes. In spite of this, the longest-standing and most established parts of the camp still contain thriving businesses, which the Refugee Economics project finds local Kenyans come to for trade.*

With the recent announcement that Dadaab and Kakuma will close, the economic coping strategies of these refugees are of crucial importance, perhaps now more than ever. In this announcement, Dr Karanja Kibicho states “as a country with limited resources, facing an existential terrorist threat, [Kenya] can no longer allow our people to bear the brunt of the International Community’s weakening obligations to the refugees.”

As the voices of individuals are all too often lost within the hype and hysteria of governments, media projects like Refugee Economics that showcase the voices of resilient, displaced individuals contributing to their communities, deserve the utmost levels of support and encouragement.

For project updates and further information please visit the Refugee Economics website.

[*] Source: interview with Flavie Halais of The Refugee Economics Project.

One comment

  1. Thanks for sharing these voices.


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