No Pride in Ageing: The Plight of Elderly Refugees in Uganda

By Okot Francis Oyat (Published 3rd October 2016)

On December 14, 1990, the UN General Assembly made October 1 as the International Day of Older Persons, following up on initiatives such as the Vienna International Plan of Action on Ageing, which was adopted by the 1982 World Assembly on Ageing and endorsed later that year by the Assembly. The International Day of Older Persons was observed for the first time throughout the world on 1 October 1991, the same year the UN General Assembly adopted the United Nations Principles for Older Persons. In 2002 the second World Assembly on Ageing adopted the Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing to respond to the opportunities and challenges of population ageing in the 21st century and to promote the development of a society for all ages. This year’s commemoration is under the theme Take a Stand Against Ageism.

Older refugees make up a larger proportion of the UNHCR caseload than may be generally recognized. It is commonly assumed that older people are more likely to choose to stay in their places of origin, or, more tragically still, to perish in flight or to pine away and die in exile. In fact, older refugees make up some 3 per cent of the overall population of concern to UNHCR. The majority of these older persons are women. (UNHCR Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015)

The definition of an older person as adopted by the World Health Organization is a person over 60 years old. However, the application of this policy will respect factors such as life expectancy and cultural norms that differ from region to region. As we commemorate this year international day of the elderly, Refugee Law project recognizes the contribution of the 13,165 older refugees in Uganda (UNHCR May 2016),  and raises some of the major concerns they face.

First, both formal and informal social support systems erode in periods of war, conflict, and flight, particularly when economic or security pressures cause the separation and dispersal of families. In such scenarios, the number of elderly persons in need, and who are left to their own resources, increases.

 In many cases, families have had to make painful choices about abandonment in order to survive; many elderly have lost not only their former entitlements but also their homes and other economic assets. Further still, there is an erosion of traditional support networks as social mobility and the pace of social change erode community values and respect for the older person, leaving older refugees unable to enjoy the same authority, care and attention that they had in the past. 

The scourges of HIV/AIDS and war have often wiped out an entire middle generation, thereby contributing further to the disintegration of the social fabric; frequently elderly persons are left with immediate responsibility for their grand-children and even great-grandchildren, even as they themselves lack platforms to speak about their own issues and the public remain largely unaware of their concerns. In the rare situations where they get an opportunity to speak, their issues are not considered a priority, as they are taken as typical ageing issues with no urgent need for redress.

The elderly experience widespread exclusion from existing development and protection programs meant for both refugee and Ugandan nationals. For example, the Senior citizen grant given by Government of Uganda is benefiting few members while the majority still suffering as this program is in few selected districts only. Countries that provide third-country resettlement are reluctant to take older persons, as they are viewed as unproductive. No consideration is accorded older persons by the majority of service providers as they prepare their process, for example older persons are supposed to wait in long queues with the rest of the people as they await service delivery for hours, without water, lunch or transport for returning home

Most of the health problems of older age are the result of chronic diseases.  Many of these can   be prevented or delayed by engaging in healthy behavior. Indeed, even   in   very   advanced    years, physical activity and good nutrition can   have   powerful   benefits   for   health   and   well-being. Other health problems can be effectively managed, particularly if they are detected early enough. Even for people experiencing declines in capacity, supportive environments can ensure that they can still get where they need to go and do what they need to do which is not a case for refugee Elderly person

Health systems are poorly aligned with the needs of the older populations they now serve. In some parts of the world it is unsafe and impractical for an older person to leave their home, caregivers for elderly refugees are at times their own grandchildren, and at least 1 in 10 older people we attend to at RLP present with complications resulting from torture and sexual violence but their rehabilitation and needs are not comprehensively addressed. 

While the plight of older refugees can be severe, they should not be seen only as passive, dependent recipients of assistance, they are still useful in their community as:

•Formal and informal leaders of communities

•Valuable resources for guidance and advice 

•Contributors to peace and reconciliation measures 

•Transmitters of culture, skills and crafts that is important in preserving the traditions of the dispossessed

Tackling ageism require a new understanding of ageing by all generations. This understanding needs to counter outdated concepts of older people as burdens, and acknowledge the wide diversity of the experience of older age. To maximize the power and roles of older refugee persons, I recommend that all stakeholders, including Government of Uganda, UNHCR and its partners, donors, local and international civil society organizations, give special attention to the conditions of older refugees, and support them through:

•Placing the issue of “Ageing” at the forefront of the development and policy agenda, to ensure that older refugee persons attain equal opportunity in accessing services and resources

•Developing direct programs to address their issues, and mobilizing adequate resources to respond to the issues of elderly persons and ensure access to the basics of life including food, shelter, and medical care

•Engaging elderly persons as active participants capable of creating change and making decision.

•Undertaking communication campaigns to increase knowledge about and understanding of ageing among the media, general public, policy-makers, employers and service providers; Legislating against age-based discrimination

•A comprehensive policy on elderly refugees must take into account both these needs and the contribution they are able to make, commensurate with their age and status

They should be viewed as a resource and a power for creating positive change in individuals, families, communities, nation and the global spaces.

The writer (Okot Francis Oyat) works for RLP as a Social Worker under the Mental Health and Psychosocial Wellbeing Programme.

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