Our Connected World
New global crises leave asylum seekers and refugees more vulnerable than before.
Situated outside of Lilongwe, Malawi, is Dzaleka Refugee Camp. It currently hosts over 55,000 refugees from African countries such as Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda in an area intended for only 10,000. Some of these refugees came long ago, spillage from previous wars as far back as the 1960s. They came as asylum seekers and have been waiting for years to be given refugee status. Without refugee status they cannot access schooling or scholarships for their children or be processed in any way for resettlement. In 2021, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), only 32 percent of camp residents had received refugee status. Some have been here almost two decades.
For now, they are just waiting.
With a local Congolese pastor, I run a class in Dzaleka Refugee Camp called “Healing the Wounds of Trauma.” Priscilla started translating for me in 2018. At that time, women came weekly to unpack their stories and to have a space to talk about the fear, grief, loss and familial separation they had endured and continued to endure. The stories were harrowing. Many women remain vulnerable to ongoing trauma and abuse in the insecure camp condition, and continue to be separated from their families. I met many who lacked any hope that they or their children would ever leave the camp.
When I first met Priscilla, she had a six-month-old child and a teenage son, and she was hopeful. Her husband had received resettlement papers and moved to America. Hers and her children’s papers were in process, and she was excited. She worried for her teenage son, however, who was getting in the wrong crowd in the camp. She told me that with little work or opportunity, there was just nothing for him to do but get into trouble.
Fast forward to today. Just before Priscilla got her physical assessment to finalize her application process for resettlement in 2019, changing politics in the West shut down all resettlement of refugees in the U.S. Her application was put on hold. Then came the pandemic. She remains in the camp to this day; her husband has never met his child. These are the stories that are hard to bear. What will happen to so many refugees left in transition as the war with Ukraine wages on, as countries become more nationalistic and as the pandemic continues to challenge transportation and processing of refugee applications? They are waiting, for what end?
New crises exacerbate the old
Currently, the World Food Program (WFP), one of the many NGOs involved in the camp and the main supplier for food, provides 5,000 Malawian Kwacha ($6.12 USD) per month for food, toiletries and medicines for each family unit. Some family units can be 10-12 people strong. Recently, the WFP de-enlisted almost 700 families from receiving this amount because they simply don’t have enough funds. How the decision was made, and why certain families were cut, is unclear. For families still on the list, the struggle to obtain funds for all refugee needs means that often the WFP may be one to two months delayed in providing those funds. With the current economic crisis in Malawi, the government recently announced a 25 percent devaluation of its currency. The refugee struggle to purchase what they need with their meager allowance will intensify. Inflation is at a record 15 percent and many products in Malawi are imported (such as fuel), driving the cost of food and supplies higher. Encampment policies of Malawi are such that asylum seekers and refugees have no legal rights to settle, trade or take up employment in the national territory.
Malawi also suffered two tropical cyclones this year, causing massive flooding and poor crop outputs. This increases pressure on rural Malawians, who the government may need to assist in feeding. There is a desperate need for refugee policies to change to allow refugees to integrate into Malawi, but with all the other economic and environmental issues for the government to address for their own citizens, refugee needs are even lower on the agenda for government officials.
In another part of the world, Lebanon, reality is not too different. At a recent international medical missions conference, I interviewed a nurse-midwife working with the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Syrians arrived in refugee camps starting back in 2011. There are over 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Lebanon itself is facing an incredible economic and social crisis, and is experiencing some of the highest inflation rates in the world, losing 90 percent of its currency value since 2019.
“It’s difficult for the Lebanese church to support refugees, as the needs for themselves are so incredibly high. Now that the Lebanese have a hard time living and importing things, the last thing they want to do is be supporting a refugee population,” this missionary reported. Though Turkey has the largest population of Syrian refugees, Lebanon has the highest ratio of refugees due to its small population. One out of every four people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. According to the Refugee Protection Watch, 70 percent of Syrians in Lebanon have received no humanitarian aid since arrival. There are few medical professionals able and willing to work with the refugees. Now, with the Ukrainian refugee crisis, many agencies who were in Lebanon are ending contracts in Lebanon, making the Syrian crisis even worse.
“The cost of bread has skyrocketed. It was already high because of the economic crisis here, but it has gone up even more now,” this missionary reported. With sometimes more than 15 people living in a family grouping, living on less than US $30 a day, there is very real concern for the wellbeing of so many displaced persons.
With new refugee crises erupting in our world, old refugee crises get pushed out of the spotlight, but their reality remains unchanged. They are vulnerable to every change in policy, every economic force, every environmental shift that might change non-governmental organization funds and local government priorities. As it turns out, presidents in foreign countries, foreign militaries and changing climates that increase severe weather events impact people like Priscilla in ways they never could have imagined. This is our connected world.
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