#BookClub: How do refugees cope with the difficulties of life in camps?

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All around the world refugees leave their homes due to violent conflicts and seek safety in neighbouring countries. Yet flight does not necessary mean that the people reach places of safety. Instead, the risk of violence often persists in host countries.

This is also the case for many refugees I have spoken with in Uganda. They mainly fled the conflicts in the Kivu regions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and sought asylum in Uganda. Refugees in the country are generally placed in so-called “settlements” such as Kyaka II where I carried out the research for my new book, “Difficult Life in a Refugee Camp. Gender, Violence, and Coping in Uganda“.

Kyaka II was established already in the mid-1980s in Uganda. Although politically framed as a ‘settlement’, Kyaka II fulfils the features of refugee camps as it represents a confined space purposefully created to settle refugees, provide protection and assistance, and maintain some level of control over them. While a range of aid agencies (mainly NGOs) deliver aid projects to the refugees, Kyaka II is administered by the Government of Uganda’s Office of the Prime Minister and UNHCR. In 2014, about 23,000 refugees were settled in Kyaka II but the number has now increase to about 124,000 refugees due to renewed violence in the DRC and subsequent displacements.

The conflicts in the Kivu regions have long been known for the extreme scope of sexual and gender-based violence. But how is life after people have left and sought safety elsewhere? My research documents people’s experiences of flight and violence, life in encampment, humanitarian aid – with their coping strategies at its core.

Gender-based violence in the camp

Camps such as Kyaka II are not easy places to live.

Many women as well as men I spoke with reflected on gender-based violence in Kyaka II. Rape and sexual abuse, domestic and intimate partner violence, early and forced marriages, denial of resources and discrimination were the kinds of violence that they discussed most frequently. The risks were omnipresent and prevalent in the camp and mainly affected women and girls. Yet such risks were limited neither to the camp nor to women.

Instead, gender-based violence was an ever-present threat during conflict, flight and encampment, creating a continuum of violence. Hence, these were not distinct stages but flow into each other. Some interlocutors in Kyaka II even mentioned that they crossed paths with the people who perpetrated violence during conflict or flight while living in the camp.

In addition to the violence that women and girls had to face, men and boys were also exposed to gender-based violence, an issue that has received insufficient attention in forced migration and refugee studies so far. In Kyaka II, people spoke carefully about these dangers, which indicates the extent to which it still constitutes a taboo. Yet some were willing to speak, and explained how forced recruitment into armed groups and sexual violence also present gender-based risks for men and boys.

Why do these risks prevail in camps like Kyaka II even though they are purposefully established for the shelter, protection and control of refugees?

Gender-based violence occurred not only despite various protection and support projects that humanitarian agencies implemented in the camp – but also partly because of the conditions and projects that prevail. In the book, I explain that the camp life and the local restrictions that are enforced both pose risks and contribute to frustration and tensions within communities.

Whether one considers the challenge of accessing aid or the long journeys to reach markets, schools and aid agencies’ offices, a range of diverse issues made everyday life hard and multiplied existing risks. In some cases, interlocutors also noted violence by humanitarian workers, for example when they ask for sex in return for aid. Although such cases were rarely brought up, they nonetheless demonstrate how camp life, humanitarian systems, and the threat of violence are inherently entangled.

Coping with the difficult life in the camp

In the face of the challenging conditions at Kyaka II, the refugees continuously devised strategies to cope with the difficulties they were confronted with, protect themselves and each other, keep their families well, and push for to overall improvements. During my interviews, camp residents therefore used and spoke about a great variety of strategies to deal with the camp life.

To stay safe, for example, what from the outside might appear to be “innocent” everyday practices became crucial protection strategies. In this process, collaborative efforts among the wider community, and mutual support, were central. Children and adolescence walking to schools together, adults building trusted economic networks in and beyond the camp, are two classic examples of this. Others include people going about daily tasks together to reduce burdens, overcome household challenges, claim their rights, practice faith – and use it to work towards a better future. In turn, these examples shed light on how safety practices are intertwined with economic, political, legal, social, religious and other behaviours.

It is important to acknowledge these strategies so that refugees are not seen as passive and helpless victims in need of external humanitarian support, and are instead understood as creative actors with valuable skills and experiences.

While this resonates with the wider academic and policy debate at the moment, in which coping strategies and resilience are receiving much attention, we nonetheless need to be careful here. Refugees’ coping should not be romanticized and imagined to mean that camp life is ‘not that bad’. On the contrary, the difficult camp conditions can be so precarious that the coping strategies people employ to get by put them in new kinds of risk. For example, since opportunities for formal employment and income generation are limited in Kyaka II, many have to engage in informal labour, which often entails insecure working conditions with little sustainability or future prospects. This is particularly true of what has been called “sex for favour” and “survival sex”, which may give people enough food or money to feed themselves and their families, but also exposes them to a range of psychological and physical violence, not to mention health issues.

Hence, while it is important to acknowledge refugees as actors, their strategies should not be used to trivialize camp life or justify turning a blind eye to the conditions in the camps and so failing to improve them. From the various conversations I had with women and men in Uganda, life in the camp remained difficult over the course of many years – despite their commitment to improve it.

Ulrike Krause is Junior Professor of Forced Migration and Refugee Studies at IMIS, Osnabrück University. Her research focuses on humanitarianism, conflict-displacement nexus, resilience, gender, and agency of refugees.

The book, Difficult Life in a Refugee Camp: Violence, Gender, and Coping in Uganda (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) is out now. Buy it here.

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