Ethiopia: serving refugees in the Horn of Africa
13 November 2014

Young refugees from Eritrea at Mai Aini refugee camp in Ethiopia. An unusual feature of the Mai Aini camp population is the youthfulness of the residents. (Christian Fuchs / Jesuit Refugee Service USA)
In a situation of utter despair, learning is a way to nourish hope in people, hope in children. It is so important to get displaced children into school, to establish a routine of life. Learning is a form of healing after experiencing trauma in the midst of a conflict.
Dollo Ado, 13 November 2014 – The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) noted that during 2013 the "population of concern" in Ethiopia rose from about 379,000 to 436,000. Most of these refugees live in camps in the Dollo Ado region, a desert area near the southeastern border with Somalia and Kenya. Most struggle to get by in the camps, even risking their lives. Yet with improved educational and livelihood, much can be done to offer young refugees the hope of a brighter future.

Lack of prospects. Young people comprise the majority of the population in Mai Aini camp. Of particular concern are the approximately 1,250 separated or unaccompanied minors presently living in the camp. Troublingly, an additional 500 minors disappeared from the camp between October 2011 and April 2013, many frustrated at the lack of prospects for a better future. Some children are encouraged by local family members to leave in order to join family abroad.

"One of the most challenging things that the refugees face is that need of going back home. Hope (to return home) is not yet visible in the near future…They have flashbacks of what they have seen in their lives, the dear ones they have seen being killed, the rape situations they have (experienced), and all these situations are a great challenge," said Tium Debesai, JRS Psychosocial Coordinator in Melkadida.

The lack of hope of returning home or being resettled in a developed country discourages refugees from remaining in the camp. Some, particularly young people, engage smugglers to take them to Sudan or Libya, and often end up attempting the unsafe and sometimes fatal journeys across the Mediterranean. Others are trafficked to the Sinai Peninsula and sold to criminal gangs, which subject them to torture and extortion.

"It is important to identify these children as soon as possible after their arrival in the camp and to provide safe routes to [family] reunification," said JRS USA Policy Director, Mitzi Schroeder.

Supported by a grant from the US State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, JRS is working with UNHCR and local authorities to prevent irregular departures by improving conditions for children in the camp and working toward long-term solutions.

Education nourishes. Offering schooling demonstrates to students people do recognise their value and believe in their future contribution to society. It allows children to focus on something other than the destruction of war or the dull routine of a refugee camp.

"In a situation of utter despair, learning is a way to nourish hope in people, hope in children. It is so important to get displaced children into school, to establish a routine of life. Learning is a form of healing after experiencing trauma in the midst of a conflict," said JRS International Director, Peter Balleis SJ.

While some displaced persons return to their homelands, many have no choice but to resettle in a new country. In cases of both repatriation and resettlement, education can help – help to rebuild their countries after a period of upheaval, or help to adapt to a new land and a new home.

In line with UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, JRS believes that states should undertake assessment to determine what is in the best interest of these refugee children in determining who should benefit from resettlement. This year, 100 children will be resettled, most to the USA. Other young people, with the skills to become self-sufficient in urban areas, will be allowed to the camp under the Ethiopian government's Out of Camp programme.

Education programmes, including vocational training, are invaluable in preparing refugees to live on their own.

"We offer livelihood training combined with adult education, what we call the functional literacy programme. We provide that training in an integrated manner which is mainly focused on certain skills that we think are marketable, like tailoring, masonry work and plumbing. We (also) try to strengthen some skills that already exist in the community," said Mulugeta W/Eyesus of JRS Ethiopia.

Psychosocial support. Camp life can be brutally dull, and combined with promise of better prospects elsewhere, it is easy to see why the youth leave. It is important for both their physical and mental wellbeing that children – and adults – are given the opportunity to learn and socialise in a healthy way.

"[Our] focus is psychosocial support. We have three programmes: counselling, music and theatre, and sports and recreational activities. The youth need some recreational activities, or they will be involved in risky behaviour," said Mai Aini project director, Fanuel Abebe.

Testimonies from the young refugees illustrate the importance of these programmes, which have offered some the opportunity to nurture their talents in music and theatre with amazing results. A good example is a band formed by graduates of the music and theatre classes. The band entertains camp residents at public celebrations, helping young musicians earn an income.

JRS sees a brighter future for those in the camps. Whether they are able to return safely to their homeland or are resettled in a third country, we should nurture and encourage the hope of refugees.

JRS recommendations for action:
  • UNHCR must redouble its information campaign to prevent refugee youth from making the dangerous decision to leave the camp on their own.
  • While good progress has been made to find solutions to the refugee's plight, efforts to find new opportunities for both children and young people need to be enhanced through the resettlement and local integration programmes, such as the Out of Camp initiative, and the establishment of a mechanism reuniting children with their parents in Eritrea.
  • Camp conditions should be improved by devoting resources to the improvement of recreational activities, education, housing and other facilities.
  • Whenever possible, the refugee community, including refugee youth, should be permitted and encouraged to play a meaningful role in camp decisions and their implementation, so as to create a sense of community and purpose.
JRS has programmes for refugees in three locations in Ethiopia. In addition to serving refugees from Somalia at Melkadida and Kobe camps in Dollo Ado, JRS also serves urban refugees in the capital, Addis Ababa, and refugees from Eritrea at Mai Aini refugee camp in the northeast.