When I was working for the Research and Advocacy Unit, a non-governmental organisation that addresses organised violence and torture in Zimbabwe, I administered a questionnaire to Zimbabwean refugees living in South Africa. Through this experience I gained insight into the link between forced migration and transitional justice. On my last day, I had an experience that increased my appreciation of the plight of refugees. A woman came to the hotel where I stayed. She had heard about the survey and wanted to tell her story. The hotel would not let her onto their premises so I had to meet her on the street. The sight of her broke my heart. Her clothes were tattered. Her skin was a black-grey colour- a sign that she had not bathed in days. The baby on her back was crying incessantly. “She is hungry,” she explained, “She has not had anything to eat for days.” As she spoke I found myself struggling to hold back my tears.
I could not interview her in the hotel. “She will cause discomfort for the other guests,” the hotel manager informed me. The street was not an option either, with the baby incessantly crying and the car horns blaring. She insisted she wanted her story to be heard. We walked together and the sight of a fruit stall I stopped to buy her a few bananas and oranges so she could feed her baby. The child quieted down and the woman began her story.
Several young men had come to her home at night in one of the rural towns of Zimbabwe. Her father was perceived to belong to the wrong political party. These men tied up her mother and father and set their hut ablaze, burning them alive. They dragged her into the forest where they raped her, one after the other then left her for dead. She had no idea which one of them was the father of her baby. She had run away from home, walked miles on foot, and begged for passage aboard any vehicle heading for South Africa. She was smuggled across the border because she did not possess valid travel documents. With no money the only thing she could give was her body; more abuse. Had believed she would be safe but in South Africa all she found was more victimisation, hunger, poverty, loneliness and pain; “I had a home. I had family. I am educated, you know. I wanted to be a nurse.”
All I could give her were a few bananas and contacts of organisations that might help her. I wish I could have done more. Many other people face the same fate. They had homes, lives, families, hopes and aspirations, all lost through no fault of their own. The African adage “when giants fight it is the grass that suffers” applies as conflicts rage on and citizens suffer, become refugees and are ostracised in the countries to which they flee. Meanwhile, those responsible for their losses remain ensconced in their grandeur, surrounded by thousands of bodyguards to ensure their protection.
Apart from violent conflict, persecution and imprisonment of political opponents has become one of the leading causes of refugee influxes. Massive abuses of human rights, monopolisation of political and economic power, disrespect for democratic processes such as elections, resistance to popular participation in governance, and poor management of public affairs were key factors that triggered forced displacements in Zimbabwe. In Burma, the suppression of minority tribal groups by a military that wants to impose the supremacy of the majority ethnicity, has led many people to flee the country. Dissenting political voices are persecuted in China, Ethiopia and Iran. Sudan currently has the largest IDP population in Africa owing to targeted attacks on Nubians in Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states and on Darfuris. In Somalia and Ethiopia; war and famine have driven many away from their homes, resulting in the great numbers of refugees at Dadaab camp on the Somali/Kenyan border.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reveals that nearly 28 per cent (3.2 million) of the world’s twelve million refugees are in Africa, with nine of the top twenty ‘refugee-producing’ countries being in Africa. A 2009 report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) covering 21 African countries estimated that there were 11.6 million IDPs in these countries, representing more than 40 per cent of the world’s total IDPs. Indeed, forced displacement has reached chronic levels.
When refugees flee from their homes, they seek security from the threats to their life and liberty. Fleeing however does not guarantee security; it merely exchanges one form of vulnerability for another. In camps they are restricted to isolated, insecure areas. If assimilated into the society they are often thrust into hostile societies with xenophobic tendencies. Women and girls may be subjected to rape, sexual violence, human trafficking and abductions for purposes of forced marriage by male family members, security personnel stationed by the government, and leaders and agency officials delivering aid. Young men and boys are forcibly conscripted into militia forces. Violent clashes with local populations over land and resources are also common, Kenya being an example. More often than not, states are either unable or unwilling to provide refugees with assistance.
Attitudes towards refugees must change. The first necessity is to realise that a refugee today was a national of another country yesterday with a home, a job, hopes and aspirations. Second, refugees are victims of circumstances beyond their control. Third, legal regimes that portray refugees as the ‘other’ breed resentment in local populations leading to xenophobic attacks. These legal regimes must be transformed. Fourth, instead of ostracising refugees, host countries and the global community should ostracise the political leaders, rebel movements or any other groups responsible for forcing the refugees to flee their homes. This should include but is not limited to, freezing their assets, denying them travel access, preventing them from accessing arms or weapons used to destroy whole populations and pushing for processes that hold perpetrators of human right violations against refugees accountable for their actions.