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Uganda needs more help in world’s fastest-growing refugee crisis

Thursday 22nd June 2017

Uganda’s “open door” policy toward refugees – now being held up around the world as a gold standard – could quickly buckle and fail unless the international community respond in full to the country’s $673 million UN appeal.

International donors have pledged only $117 million so far to Uganda out of the $637 million needed for the county’s South Sudan refugee response. So far the $1.38 billion UN appeal for the wider region’s response to the world’s fast-growing refugee crisis – which includes Uganda, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo – is only 15% funded.

Almost one million people have fled South Sudan for Uganda since December 2013. So far this year an average of 2,000 people have arrived each day. Uganda is now hosting more than 1.25 million refugees in total, a number which has doubled over the last year. The vast majority – 86% – are women and children who need specific support to keep them safe from rape, beatings, torture, hunger and abandonment.

Peter Kamalingin, Oxfam’s Country Director in Uganda, said: “Uganda hosts the third-largest population of refugees in the world and yet it is one of the most under-funded host nations. This is both highly unfair and highly unsustainable. Uganda must get the support it needs to continue its welcoming policies toward its neighbour.”

Uganda is hosting the first Refugee Solidarity Summit on 22nd and 23rd June. Oxfam is calling on the international community to provide funds, humanitarian aid and, crucially, to pave the way for a peaceful resolution to conflicts in neighbouring countries. 

“Governments urgently need to invest in the Uganda response to ensure that refugees and their host communities are provided with shelter and protection among other urgent needs. Local humanitarian agencies here have a vital understanding of the context of the crisis, so they need to be supported to deal with the needs of refugees in timely and cost-effective ways,” Kamalingin said.

Uganda’s policies provide a basis for refugees to be able to access land, shelter and employment.

Kamalingin continued: “On paper, these policies are laudable and Uganda is rightly being praised – but it needs to be supported too. Host communities also need land, clean water, food and employment opportunities. Uganda is balancing people’s needs as best it can for the moment, but it won’t be able to sustain that over time without proper backing. Most importantly, it should not be lost to regional governments and the International community that the most urgent relief for a refugee is peace at home.”

Speaking on behalf of fifty national and local organisations who were consulted ahead of the summit, Paparu Lilian Obiale, Humanitarian Programme Manager at CEFORD, an Oxfam partner in the West Nile region, said: “Ugandan civil society hopes that the summit will not only raise the profile of refugees in Uganda but also bring much needed funding and encourage real discussion about the root causes of the displacement in the region. There needs to be genuine discussion about how we foster sustainable futures both for refugees and those in hosting communities." 

ENDS

CONTACT:

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND: Alice Dawson on 00353 (0) 83 198 1869 / alice.dawson@oxfamireland.org

NORTHERN IRELAND: Phillip Graham on 0044 (0) 7841 102535 / phillip.graham@oxfamireland.org

Notes to editors:

Oxfam’s refugee response in Uganda: Oxfam’s response to the refugee crisis in Uganda, alongside partners, is currently reaching over 280,000 refugees across four districts providing life-saving assistance, clean water, sanitation hygiene including construction of pit latrines, sustainable livelihoods and integrating gender and protection work. Oxfam and partners are actively engaged in advocacy for sustainable approaches to the refugee response as well as peace building at local level, national, regional and international levels.

Over the last 4 years, Oxfam in Uganda invested in pilot humanitarian capacity building for over 15 local and national organisations across different parts of Uganda. Those partners, working closely with Oxfam are critical in delivering timely and quality humanitarian services to people in need including during the influx of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012/13 and the influx of South Sudanese refugees since December 2013 to date. 

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“Hi, I am Hazem, I hope you haven’t forgotten me yet.”

Forced migration separates families. It wrenches children from their parents and grandparents, separates siblings, forces partners to live apart, and destroys extended family networks. Over the past months, Oxfam has interviewed people that have been stranded in Greece and asked them to share their experiences during their perilous journeys to Europe and the separation from their family. The right to family life and the protection of the family is a shared value that cuts across cultures.

People who were separated from their family talked to Oxfam about the severe impacts separation has on their lives and wrote letters to their loved ones in other EU member states.

Abdul

Abdul from Herat, Afghanistan, hopes to reunite with his wife and son in Germany. He wrote a heart-warming letter to them, while he waits for his family reunification request to be processed in Epirus.

“Greetings to my wife Zahra Ahmadi and to my dear son Mohamad Taha Jan that are now in the city of Hamburg, Germany. I hope both of you are in good health and spirit. I hope one day I will be next to you and once again we live together. May God protect both of you.

With respect,

Abdul Algafar Ahmadi

 

Abdul, a refugee from Herat in Afghanistan, who fled to Epirus, Greece. Photo: Felipe Jacome/Oxfam

Najat

Najat fled with only a few members of her family from the town of Afrin in Northern Syria, and she now lives in Epirus, in Greece. She hopes to reunite with her oldest son who arrived in Germany in 2016.

“My dear son Mohannad,

How are you? How is your health?

I am your mother in Greece. Thank God that we are OK, nothing is missing, except seeing you and your brothers. How’s your health, and everything else?

Let me know about yourself.”

The EU and its member states, including Ireland, are failing to protect the right to family life for migrants, including refugees, as the new policy brief of Oxfam ‘Dear Family’ showcases. Their policies and practices are tearing families apart, forcing them to continue living apart after being separated during displacement and exposing people to risks.

The ‘MikriPoli’ Community Centre is based in Ioannina, the North-west region of Greece where Oxfam operates. Itwas established in March 2016 by Terre des Hommes and Oxfam, thanks to the support from European Union emergency support funding (ECHO). The centre helps provide cross-cultural communication and simultaneously supports people who arrive in Greece seeking safety and dignity.

Najat fled with only a few members of her family from Afrin in Northern Syria, to Epirus in Greece. Photo: Felipe Jacome/Oxfam. 

Hazem

Hazem is a 20-year-old Syrian asylum seeker who lives in Greece, and who also works in the Mikri Poli Community Centre. Hazem shared his feelings about the separation of his family, and sends a powerful message to European governments:

“I am almost 20 and I live in an apartment in Ioannina, working as an interpreter/cultural mediator for an NGO called Terre des Hommes. My main work is in the community centre in Ioannina.

 “I am in touch with my family, my mum, who has stayed with my little brother back in Syria, my brothers, who are in Germany, and my sister, who lives in a camp in Konitsa. I haven’t seen my brothers for two years and my mum for almost 1 year and a half. My mum and my brother are still in Syria. We couldn’t find a way for them to join us in Europe or even to be in a safe site [in Syria]. Now, they are a bit safe because of the ceasefire in Idlib. But anyway, this is not a permanent solution, it is a painkiller!

“Honestly, I miss my mum the most, I miss her hugs, her presence inside our home, her delicious food, and everything related to her. I am still stuck in Greece having a sharp desire to continue my studies in medicine which were interrupted due to conflict and study also about cultures and religions, how they affect each other, and how to approach people from different backgrounds. I want to take the next step and learn a new language and integrate with the society. It is still hard to feel stable. I am worried about the rest of my family and this is a sharp challenge.

“Regarding that, I have something to say to the European governments: We are still human, please, support the family reunification more and give it more importance. Because people are suffering from family dispersion and I am one of them.”

Hazem is a 20-year-old asylum seeker now living in Greece. Photo: Angelos Sioulas/Oxfam

How will the EU respond to Hazem and so many others like him?

As well as working to give practical support to people forced to flee, Oxfam has been campaigning for changes in the law to help people find safe and legal routes to escape from war and persecution, and measures to help families torn apart be united and find safety together.

Find out more information about Oxfam’s Right to Refuge – Keep Families Together campaign. You can read Oxfam’s new policy brief on refugee family reunion in Ireland here and the full ‘Dear Family’ report here. Find out more about Oxfam’s humanitarian response in Greece here.

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Oxfam Ireland urges Minister Flanagan to reverse restriction preventing refugees reuniting with family in Ireland

Move could help Ireland meet deadline to bring in 4,000 refugees by end of 2017

Criteria for family reunification was limited after pledge to take in more refugees

New UN refugee figures published today highlight massive scale of global crisis

Monday June 19th, 2017

Oxfam Ireland has called on the newly appointed Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan to urgently reverse a restriction devised in 2015 – following the Government’s promise to take in 4,000 refugees – which is preventing people seeking refuge from reuniting with relatives here.

The call follows the publication today of new statistics by the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR which show the massive scale of the global refugee crisis. The total number of people forcibly displaced is now at 65.6 million – an increase of 300,000 on the previous year.

Oxfam said re-instating a wider criteria for family reunification which was ended in a 2015 Act could help the Irish Government to deliver on its commitment to bring 4,000 refugees to Ireland by the end of 2017 – a deadline less than six months away. So far less than a third (1,259 as of May 15th) have arrived under the Irish Refugee Protection Programme with over 2,700 people languishing in camps in Italy and Greece still to come.

Oxfam Ireland Chief Executive Jim Clarken said: “It’s quite contradictory for the Government to pledge to resettle 4,000 refugees and then to change the laws and prevent certain family members from seeking refuge here. This is like building a bridge from one side while at the same time taking away the foundation stones from the other.

“In his previous ministry in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Minister Flanagan witnessed first-hand the impact of widespread conflict and persecution on people who were forced to flee their homes. Now he must ensure that Ireland plays its role in providing them with safety.

“It’s time to right the wrongs and reverse this poor decision that’s tearing families apart. Children are wrenched from their grandparents, siblings divided and extended family networks weakened. Families are forced to continue living apart after being separated during often perilous journeys to find safety – this is heaping trauma upon trauma on some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. Restrictive policies and practices across Europe mean refugees can find themselves stuck indefinitely in camps in places like Greece and Italy, just a short flight away from the relatives they long to be with.”

Responding to the publication of the UN’s new refugee figures, Jim Clarken added: “The war in Syria continues into its sixth year, tens of millions are caught in an unprecedented hunger crisis in South Sudan, East Africa, Yemen and north-east Nigeria, while other deadly violence and natural disasters force people from their homes around the globe.

“These new numbers underscore that the global community must immediately offer stronger lifelines to people as they flee for their lives, and also work together to tackle the root causes.”

As Oxfam published a new report today which shows how migration policies across Europe are keeping families apart, Oxfam urged the Government to reverse a change in law made by the 2015 International Protection Act which significantly restricts the ability of refugees to reach family members living in Ireland.

The Act narrowed the eligibility criteria which means refugees living here who want to bring family members to safety in Ireland through the asylum process can only apply for spouses and children or siblings under the age of 18. Those aged 18 and over are separated from parents and younger siblings, grandparents are separated from grandchildren and children travelling alone cannot reach extended family members settled in Ireland.

The previous 1996 Refugee Act granted a discretionary power to the Minister for the Justice which allowed for a wider definition of the family, i.e. any grandparent, parent, brother, sister, child, grandchild, ward or guardian of the refugee who is dependent on them or suffering from a mental or physical disability that means they cannot fully care for themselves.

Oxfam is calling on the Irish government to amend the 2015 International Protection Act to expand the definition of family to include young adults who are dependent on the family unit prior to flight, parents, siblings, in-laws and any other dependent relative. The agency says that at the very least the Minister’s discretionary power should be reinstated as per the 1996 Refugee Act.

Jim Clarken added: “Changing the rules on family reunification not only offers Ireland an opportunity to show leadership in upholding fundamental human rights and share responsibility for the global refugee crisis, but could also help to meet our existing obligations.”

While Ireland struggles to meet its pledge, Lebanon, a country half the size of Munster, currently hosts 1.2 million refugees from Syria. In Uganda, up to 3,000 refugees from South Sudan are arriving each day.

Oxfam’s new report Dear Family: How European Migration Policies are Keeping Families Apart, details the situation of refugee families in Europe, with a particular focus on Greece. It details the testimony of refugees and migrants who are desperately seeking to be reunited with their loved ones and shows how a narrow definition of ‘family’ in EU member states, including Ireland’s legislation alongside bureaucratic challenges, keep families apart.

As of May 2017, 35% of people benefiting from Oxfam’s legal aid programmes in Lesbos and Epirus were trying to reunite with family members in Europe. Several cases were reported to Oxfam in Greece of pregnant women who were transferred to other refugee camps, or even the mainland, while their partner was forced to stay behind in Moria, a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, because they had no paperwork proving their relationship.

The report finds that many people in Greece, separated from loved ones in another EU member state, are becoming increasingly desperate. Most have been stranded in Greece for over a year, trying to navigate the asylum system and family reunification procedures, and often contemplating using smugglers in their attempt to move on.

Oxfam has been providing support to more than 6.7 million people in conflict-affected countries in the past year.

ENDS

Contact: Sorcha Nic Mhathúna, Oxfam Ireland, +353 83 1975 107 or sorcha.nicmhathuna@oxfamireland.org

Oxfam Ireland’s press releases are available at www.oxfamireland.org/press and follow @Media_OxfamIRL on Twitter for breaking news, spokesperson information and other updates

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Fatem and Khalil: One Syrian family’s journey to Europe

The majority of Syrian refugees who have reached Europe have had to take dangerous, sometimes fatal, journeys across land and sea. But this is a different story, one which shows that there are other ways of providing sanctuary to those fleeing the horrors of war.

Fatem recalls the fear she felt when war broke out in her hometown of Raqqa. “We were living in the heart of the conflict,” she says. “Every time we kissed each other goodnight we thought it could be the last time.” Her husband Khalil couldn’t work after the fighting started. Money became so tight that Fatem, who was expecting their first child, couldn’t even see a doctor. But the final straw came after the birth of their baby boy, Ahmed, and the couple realised that there was no milk in the shops to feed him. ”That was the moment when we clearly realised we couldn’t stay in Syria any more,” says Khalil. He decided to go to Lebanon to find a job and a home – his young family would then follow him. The most precious thing he took with him was a photo album showing happy memories – their wedding, their parents and their beautiful house. 

Fatem, and her husband Khalil and their two children arrive in Rome. Photo: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam

Khalil had to sleep on the streets on his first night in Lebanon. It was a sign – nothing in this country would be easy. For four years the family struggled to make ends meet in their adopted home, a small country with the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, and a place where 70 percent of Syrian refugees live below the poverty line. For Khalil, finding work as an electrician, plumber and painter was difficult, so he still had to borrow money to feed his family, which had grown with the birth of baby Mohamed. Their home was a small, dark room in a town in Mount Lebanon, an hour from Beirut. It was cold and the children often got sick.

One day, Khalil learned from a neighbour that there was a way of travelling to Italy, safely and legally, with a humanitarian visa. After much research, the family met with the Italian organisations working on the “Humanitarian Corridors” programme, an initiative which aims to prevent both dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean and human trafficking. At first, Fatem was sceptical –she never thought they would be selected. But after a couple of interviews they got the good news.

Khalil and Fatem couldn’t sleep the night before their flight to Italy. They’d been counting down the days for months, their suitcases waiting in a corner of their tiny home. Torn by their situation, they shed tears of joy and sadness. They were leaving behind those with whom they had spent the past four years – their cousin’s family, who had welcomed them into their home during their first month in Lebanon, and their neighbours, most of whom were Syrian, and who’d also fled their homeland. Above all, they were moving further away from Syria.

The journey took 24 hours, starting in Beirut and ending in the Tuscan town of Cecina. When they arrived, two social workers from Oxfam brought them to their new temporary home – a flat with a garden. The family learned that they would get money for six months to buy food, medicine and other essentials. They would have WiFi in the apartment and get Italian language lessons. And they would receive help in applying for asylum and looking for work. At the end of the six months, the family would be considered self-sufficient.

“I never imagined we would end up living in Italy. I thought the war would only last for two or three years, but the situation just gets worse,” says Khalil, as he tunes into an Arabic television channel to get the latest news from Syria. “I hope people in Europe don’t think we are terrorists or extremists. We are here because we are running away from them, from the conflict.”

Fatem adds: “We want a future for our children. That is why we are willing to learn a new language and adapt to different customs.” When asked if they would like to go back to Syria when the war ends – if they would like this story to end where it began – Fatem replies: “Of course we will go back. But if a long time passes and my children feel established here, we will only go back to visit. The stability of our family comes first.”

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Keeping families together

Layla Mohammed* (39) and her family recently returned to their home in Bashir village in Iraq after two years on the move. The family were forced to leave everything behind when ISIS captured their village and fighting broke out.

In Iraq, Oxfam is helping families like Layla’s who have returned to their homes to get back on their feet and rebuild their lives through cash for work programmes and business grants.

We’ve installed water systems and toilets in camps for those forced to flee and distributed other vital supplies such as blankets and heaters. Oxfam has also helped run trauma centres in the eastern part of the besieged city of Mosul and we continue to support health centres with water and sanitation.

Photo: Tegid Cartwright/Oxfam 

Life was good before ISIS came. Layla and her husband had a two-storey house, livestock and a shop – they were able to provide for their children. Initially, they weren’t afraid of ISIS because Bashir was surrounded by police and military, and they thought they would be safe

When ISIS came, Layla’s husband was away working. He had told her to stay safe at home. She didn’t know what to do.

“[My husband] told me to stay but I saw people escaping…My eldest daughter understood what was going on and she was afraid. I was afraid because they were shooting and bombing so I took my children and went to Taza, the next town. My husband called me and told me that I did well to escape. I kept thinking it was the end of our lives and they would kill us.”

Photo: Tegid Cartwright/Oxfam 

The battle for Bashir destroyed Layla’s home and over 100 of her friends and neighbours have never been seen again. Layla fled Taza shortly after arriving as ISIS were en route to claim it too. She lived in a mosque for seven months and then an empty school building for two months. Finally she settled with her family in a cattle shed in another village called Leylan.

“We stayed in the cattle stable for a year. The neighbours helped us and gave us food. We were strangers there but they helped us anyway. The stable was small…dirty and had scorpions. I could only think of my house in Bashir, which was clean.” 

Photo: Tegid Cartwright/Oxfam 

Layla was worried about her family and their future. She had decided not to send her son to the local school because she believed that they were going to return home any day. As a result, he missed out on a year of his education. Worse still, food was very scarce – and her children were starving. 

“We had nothing to feed the children, I only had sugar and water to give them. They were starving. When we were escaping from Taza I found a sack of bread someone had left for their cattle and I took it and gave it to the children to eat.”

Only one thing kept her going: “Every day that I was displaced I was living to come home.”

Photo: Tegid Cartwright/Oxfam 

When Bashir was retaken, Layla told her husband that she wanted to go home. But when the family returned, they couldn’t go near the house because it was littered with mines. The army had to clear the site before she could start rebuilding her home – and her life.

The first time she saw her house, Layla cried for a long time. Then she set her mind to transforming a pile of rubble into a home: “I was waking my husband up at 5am every day and I lifted the concrete blocks myself. People respected me for it in the community…They said I am doing a lot to rebuild my own house. I am happy to be home because it’s my home; even if I only eat bread I am happy to be back. I never thought I would get to come back.”

Layla and her family, who feature in our virtual reality content from Iraq, got to experience a virtual reality trip to Tanzania for themselves when Oxfam brought the head set to their home in Bashir in Iraq. Photo: Tegid Cartwright/Oxfam 

Last year, Oxfam launched the Right to Refuge campaign to put pressure on governments ahead of the first UN summit on refugees and migration. An incredible 32,000 people from across the island of Ireland joined us by signing our petition calling on the Irish and UK governments to do more to protect refugees and migrants.

The summit marked the start of a long process to agree a new global plan for refugees and migrants which will be announced in 2018. And while some progress has been made, it isn’t enough. What we urgently need now is action.

We are expanding our Right to Refuge campaign to call on governments to immediately do more to welcome and protect those seeking safety and to reunite families that have been torn apart as they flee from war, persecution or disaster. As part of this, we have developed a virtual reality environment where you can experience what life is like for Layla for yourself throughout this summer at various shopping centres, festivals and events throughout the island of Ireland. To find out more about our locations, please email info@oxfamireland.org.

Please take a moment to ask your government to protect the right to refuge.

*Name changed to protect identity

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