CAIRO 2004 - The following is an interview with Katrien Ringelé, the Coordinator of ICMC's European Resettlement Network (ERN) project. A Belgian national, Katrien worked from 2001 to 2003 as an ICMC deployee in Cairo, Egypt at the Durable Solutions Section of the regional office of UNHCR. In 2004, she worked in Guinea on a project to identify female-headed households for resettlement to Australia.
Krenara was barely 10 years old when her mother rushed her out of the village where she was born, along with her little brother, just as the soldiers arrived with guns. They were first looking for men and boys who shared their own ethnicity, and then those who didn't, determined to burn down every house and kill any person that stood in their way. With her father and many of her uncles long gone in hiding, Krenara joined seven cousins, their mothers and a few of the boys and men of the family and just ran... Weeks later, they crossed at last the border into safety in the country next door. Months passed, and though it had become clear that she and her family would never be able to return safely to their own country, they would not be permitted to stay where they were much longer either. Then, one day word came that another country had accepted them all, permanently, for resettlement.
Seven years later, she and her family are citizens of their new country. Academically, Krenara and her brother are at the top of their class and their mother has been working already for quite some time. Besides doing her schoolwork, Krenara volunteers at a local soup kitchen in her spare time, returning the favour of helping people in their moment of need.
There is still little knowledge in Europe on how resettlement of refugees works in practice. How does someone who has fled persecution or death in their own country come to be interviewed in the country to which they fled and then legally resettled in a third country? Can everyone apply for resettlement? How are refugees selected? In what type of circumstances are refugees selected for resettlement? How are they prepared for their new life in their new country and what challenges do they face to rebuild their life once there.
A series of "Refugee Resettlement Stories" will appear from this month onwards on the ICMC website and that of our partners. The stories are accounts written by Europeans who work in the UNHCR-ICMC Resettlement Deployment Scheme, at UNHCR offices in some 40 countries throughout Africa and Asia. Every month a story will be published highlighting various aspects of the resettlement process through the personal experience of deployees.
How did you get involved in working with refugees and resettlement?
To be honest, this was more by accident. I was living in Cairo and got in touch with the UNHCR office. Since then, however, all my work has been in the field of protection with refugees. At a certain moment I went back to Europe for a year to continue studying. However I returned to the field and the refugees as that work simply does not let you go; it marks you somehow. All the people and their stories you come across, all the pain and suffering, but also the moments of joy and laughter. You keep being impressed and moved by what people go through and how extremely courageous they are; such an energy and will to continue, to fight and not to give up. It makes you wonder how you would react yourself, when facing a similar situation.
Where do most of ICMC's deployees work and in what type of settings?
So far, the majority of deployees are sent to Africa, since this continent still has the biggest share of refugees. Currently, there are deployees in all areas with large refugee populations. Think about the Afghan refugee populations in Pakistan and Iran, Iraqi refugee populations in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon; the refugee camps with Bhutanese in Nepal, with Burmese refugees in Thailand, Bangladesh and India, to name just a few. Latin America hosts also hundreds of thousands refugees from Colombia.
With regard to the type of settings in which a deployee works, it varies from place to place. Refugees are people seeking protection from wars, civil unrest and other conflicts they have left behind; and they will go virtually anywhere to find protection. Many people think that all refugees live in refugee camps: but this is not always the case. Many refugees live in big cities, the so-called 'urban refugees'. Cairo, for example, has attracted hundreds of thousands of Sudanese as well as thousands of refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Burundi, Iraqi, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Other refugees live among the local population in little villages and towns in the more rural areas. Life is typically extremely difficult for refugees; the refugees in Cairo face severe hardship, having to look for food and shelter in an often hostile environment. But generally wherever the refugees live, that's where the deployees live and work.
Was your work in Cairo a typical assignment that a deployee would carry out when working for the UNHCR-ICMC Resettlement Deployment Scheme and can you give a description of your main tasks?
There is no such thing as a typical assignment for a deployee. There are of course basic tasks or activities that all deployees would perform but the assignment really depends on your level and terms of reference and the operation, the region and the setting you are working in. It is hard to describe what my tasks were as there were so many things I got involved in. In the Cairo office, I became responsible for the day-to-day management of the "Durable Solutions Section." "Durable Solution" is the term that is used by the UN and international community to describe one of the three basic ways in which refugees may one day be able to restart their lives, either returning to their own country, integrating into the country in which they found refuge, or resettling to a third country. For many of the 8.4 million refugees in the world today, their particular "durable solution" will become possible only after many years of great peril, deprivation and vulnerability, and usually even then only with assistance from the UN, the international community, and/or a nation with the heart to welcome them.
In our office as in many UNHCR offices worldwide, a certain number of refugees were scheduled each day for 'durable solutions' interviews. They came to the office early in the morning and waited until they were called for the interview.
At this point, their status as refugee had already been determined in the course of a previous interview or interviews. So during this second interview, we would assess the situation of the individual refugee or refugee family: were there any specific problems or needs and what could be done to solve these or, at least, to alleviate them? For example, a mother with many children; a little boy who had lost his family; a man who had lost a leg and needed prosthesis. In some cases, where necessary medication or treatment is not available in Egypt or staying in Egypt in itself poses a threat for the refugee, they are referred for resettlement consideration in order to address their special needs. The UNHCR resettlement criteria, of which there are eight, form the basis for the formal identification of refugees in need of resettlement and the pursuit of resettlement as the appropriate solution. Resettlement serves thus as a long-term solution as well as a tool of protection.
What were the typical cases you received in the Cairo office while you were working there?
Among the cases we referred for resettlement consideration in Egypt, lack of local integration was very often the reason for refugees to be resettled, as in many other countries in the world. If it is extremely difficult to find work, send your children to school and you have to endure a hostile and often discriminatory environment, there are little to no prospects to build up your life in the country where you have first found refuge (often called "countries of first asylum."). But there were other reasons as well for refugees to be referred for resettlement. Among the refugees I interviewed in Egypt, there were cases of severe trauma due to torture and refugees with serious medical problems that could not be treated in Egypt, and these refugees were referred for resettlement in order to receive the necessary treatment they required.
The horror and lives and hopes of many refugees have crossed my desk. More than a few cases I remember vividly because they were so distressing and shocking. Fatima, a Somali woman, had given birth to a child as a result of sexual assault and who had to keep it secret because otherwise she would be ostracised by her own family and community. Joseph, a Southern Sudanese boy, had been abducted by militia men and sold as a slave to work in the house of a family in the North of Sudan. Jima, an Ethiopian woman, had been arrested, taken from her house along with her husband because of their political activities, and detained separately from her husband, who she never saw again, suffering horrific treatment and exploitation during her detention.
Have you been in contact with refugee resettlement programmes of European countries?
I have mainly worked with the refugee resettlement programmes of the US, Australia and Canada. In Europe, the only resettlement programme I was in contact with was the Finnish programme, which has offered resettlement to some Sudanese refugees out of Egypt. I remember that many of those refugees were first somehow reluctant and cautious about the idea of settling in Finland. But after a first group of refugees did travel there, positive feedback returned to the refugees still in Egypt and their opinion on the issue changed; the refugees were actually getting quite excited about the idea of going to Finland. It is of course important to have a good understanding of the resettlement criteria of the various country programmes in order to match cases with programmes in the best way possible.
You then worked in a refugee camp in Guinea, Africa. Was that a very different experience?
Yes, a very different experience. Our small team worked in two of the refugee camps in the South of Guinea; we lived in the town near the camps and would drive every day to the camps and back. In Cairo, it was easier to separate work and private life. Moreover, while life in Cairo is quite comfortable, in a small town in the jungle in Guinea, the situation is different: there was not always electricity or water; you live as well as work together with your colleagues day after day, and your social life is rather restricted. The camps in Guinea where I worked hosted mainly Liberian refugees, some of whom had been there for more than sixteen years. All too common, these situations in which refugees find themselves in exile for years with few rights and unable to fulfil their basic needs are referred to as 'protracted refugee situations'. Some of the camp population had returned home, but for others returning home or remaining in Guinea was not an option because they were still at risk or had no access to the medical or psychosocial treatment or care they so desperately needed in the camps. We were mainly working with 'Women-at-Risk' cases in the camps in Guinea: female refugees who due to the war in their country had lost their husbands and were separated from their family and relatives. Without their traditional family support network, these women faced extreme hardship, discrimination and social exclusion in the country of asylum and, in such cases; resettlement was the only solution to help these women to find safety, stability and new lives.
The refugee resettlement stories try to bring an insight in the resettlement process through real-life stories of refugees and deployees. I hope they will speak to you.