by Léonie Newhouse
A couple of months ago, when I was in Juba, South Sudan, a friend of mine picked me up to go for dinner. Let’s call him Tekle. He seemed pensive and maybe a bit down, so I asked him how things were going.
As we bounced our way through the potholes of Juba, he told me about a young man he knew. A few weeks before, this young man had come to him asking for a job, directed to Tekle by fellow Eritreans living in Juba. A moderately successful businessperson, Tekle receives many of these kinds of requests. Tekle recounted to me how he had told the young man to sit tight, to wait a few weeks and he would see whether he couldn’t find some small job for him. Just before he came to pick me up that day, Tekle had received the news that the young man had drowned somewhere off the coast of Libya. He wondered aloud what he would tell the young man’s mother, and he was filled with regret—that he had not been able to help the young man sooner—and anger—that the young man left without giving him a chance to find something for him.
South Sudan hosts as many refugees per capita as does Turkey; together they ranked 6th in the world behind Lebanon, Jordan, Nauru, Chad and Djibouti. This in a country where conflict means that at least 15% of the population is itself displaced, a country that consistently ranks at the very bottom of most development indicators. What’s more, that number does not include the tens of thousands of migrants from conflict affected countries like Eritrea, Somalia and DR Congo that have come to the country to find work or do business but decide not to seek asylum or ask for refugee status. At the same time that Europe has become increasingly alarmed about the crisis of migration, a profound economic crisis in South Sudan has seen food prices triple in the last year. A lack of hard currency has meant that periodically fuel has become unavailable for the water purification plants and the delivery trucks that bring water to the majority of the population. Without regular access to clean water, the inevitable result was an outbreak of cholera that claimed hundreds of lives.
A quarter of a million refugees live in South Sudan, and another 1.6 million are internally displaced .
Across the world, the vast majority of refugees are hosted regionally in large refugee camps located in countries next door to conflict or they live clandestinely in urban centers like Juba. I’ve written here about the normalized structural and assaultive violence that shapes everyday camp life. But I haven’t written about the corrosive power of boredom and enforced idleness that characterizes much of the day-to-day experience of refugees living in camps. Besides the preparation of meals, adults have little to occupy their days—some fill the time with illegal businesses, or by volunteering with camp governance or services. A few are accepted into vocational training programs, and learn work skills that they will not be allowed to take up. Others wile away the time with a game of cards or dominos, or seek diversion in mind-altering substances such as alcohol, tea, or qat. Depression is the only sane response to such conditions.
Kenya plays host to the world’s largest refugee camp. The Dadaab complex located in the northeast of the country has become a sprawling settlement that hovers between 350,000-450,000 registered refugees. Many have lived in the camp since the 1990s. Some have never known any other home.
Most would prefer another option—to be able to work, to join family established elsewhere, to start a small business, to continue their own education or that of their children—rather than being dependent on the fickle generosity of humanitarian assistance. But increasingly these options are closed to them. So refugees sit and wait—for the conflicts back at home to end, for the day their number comes up for resettlement. The odds are not in their favor: together, only the US, Canada, Australia and the Nordic countries consistently take in significant numbers of refugees through resettlement programs—amounting to less then about 1% of the total refugee population worldwide. Even if it does happen, the wait can take a DECADE. A decade spent with no viable way to pursue a future, and no promise at the end that you can move on. Would you wait that long?
Before they became refugees themselves, the Syrians making their way to Europe hosted more than a million refugees in their country—first Palestinians and later Iraqis. They are acutely aware of just how long the wait for resettlement or return can be. Is it any wonder that they are seeking some other option?
Writing recently (about another context), political theorist Achille Mbembe identifies a politics of impatience that has bubbled to the surface
…in those territories of abandonment where the violence of poverty and demoralization have become the norm, many have nothing to lose and are now more than ever willing to risk a fight. They simply can no longer wait, having waited for too long now.
For those facing the combined impact of political repression/conflict and profound economic exclusion, mere survival is an achievement that takes immense energy and ingenuity. The promise of development, of peace tomorrow is little solace. Life, right now, takes everything they’ve got, often more. It has become clear to many that waiting patiently—respecting a “queue” that is often merely imaginary—brings nothing, offers no way to build a future, any future.
So, when they can, they seek other options. From the vantage point of Europe, we may think that making it into Schengen is the option being pursued. And, yes, for some, it is. Right now, this means people risking their lives in inflatable rafts and overcrowded boats deliberately sabotaged by traffickers on the Mediterranean. But the routes to a viable future are as diverse as the people looking for options. And they are, none of them, without risk. Seeking passage may find a refugee caught up in the kidnap-for-ransom rings that operate (often with the tacit involvement of local authorities) in Sudan, Libya, Sinai and along the Malaysia/Thai border. Others seek opportunities in unstable places like South Sudan, were lax regulation of migration co-exists with police extortion, and where violence—arson, beatings, even murder—directed at immigrants is commonplace. But at least they can work, they can build a business, they can try to save for a future. These are the ‘safe third countries’ that keep coming up in the political debates.
Even more are unable to gather the resources to make those moves. We talk often of Syria and Iraq—middle income countries with educated populations—but less so of the people caught up in conflict in Yemen and the Central African Republic. Or, of the thousands of young Eritreans like the one my friend Tekle could not help in time.
For that young man, the promise of something in a few weeks might as well have been never. How many times had he been asked to wait already?