Dignity has no price tag

By Davis Uwizeye (Published 6th June 2016)

Most refugees & asylum seekers have had their self-esteem crushed and their hopes shattered by the inhumane and degrading acts that they encounter before, during and sometimes after flight, and the last thing they need is someone who spitefully revisits those wounds. 

As assessors at Refugee Law Project we interact with refugees from all walks of life on a daily basis. From our experience we have learned that, whether we are able to meet their needs or not, what really matters most for the majority of our clients is the way we treat them.

No amount of material support can compare to the dignity that refugees and asylum seekers deserve to be accorded. Although, out of desperation they may accept any support or aid in whatever form it comes, such acceptance does not reflect the content in their hearts; we perhaps all know that a broken heart is worse than an injured leg or a hungry stomach. What they need is someone who treats them humanely irrespective of their race, gender, sexuality, nationality and even physical appearance! They need someone who values and respects them as no lesser human beings than he/she is. 

More than material assistance, they need someone who can rebuild their confidence and restore their hope in whatever way possible, however small it may be. Most importantly, we all need to know that we can be that someone if we purpose to be. If you still think that you’re too small to make an impact in this regard, try sharing your bed with a mosquito. 

Refugees and asylum seekers are highly vulnerable people because most of the time they barely have anything left of their own to survive on. They are often left at the mercy of those to whom they have fled. Unfortunately some of them end up being exploited. This is especially so for young men, boys, women and girls who end up engaging in “transactional sex” or sex in exchange for money or food and other degrading activities to save their families from starvation in scenarios where host families, host countries and refugee agencies are unable to fully meet their needs. 

However, some of the women we have interacted with, later regret having had to engage in these acts saying that they felt used. They feel that they were robbed not only of their dignity but also, in some cases, their virginity. It is at this point that some give up on their much cherished dream of getting married and having families of their own because they feel unworthy. 

By the skin of their teeth, some of these young women are lucky to survive the HIV infection but not lucky enough to evade pregnancy. They’re forced to become single mothers at a tender age.  And this has its own much bigger health and economic implications. 

These young men and women become severely depressed and traumatized. Some confess to being suicidal and or homicidal every time they remember their past experiences of violence. The women say that their babies are a constant reminder of their “consensual sex abusers” who often disappear into thin air, leaving these poor souls in an abyss of mental and livelihood challenges. Men and boys on the other hand often lose their sexual well-being as a result of sexual victimization and can hardly fulfill their conjugal obligations in their subsequent relations ships. This can also lead to vicious cycle of broken homes and broken lives. 

The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon once remarked that sexual violence (exploitation) in war is as destructive as any bomb or bullet. I couldn’t agree more. 

Let us all be reminded that being a refugee or an asylum seeker is not unique to a specific race or nationality; anyone can be a refugee. Today it may be a Syrian, Libyan, Congolese, Somali, Iraqi or a Burundian seeking asylum but no one knows who could be next. Let us treat refugees the way we would want to be treated if we woke up in their shoes tomorrow. For host nations, granting a refugee asylum should not be all that there is to offer. The onus is on the host country to create an environment in which law-abiding refugees are free to enjoy their fundamental rights and freedoms. 

As the world continues to grapple with the refugee crisis, I pray that the European Union and other developed nations will “man up”.  and Rather than opting to close their borders to helpless “invaders”,  an act that can only be equated to a father turning his back on his own child, let them find better and sustainable ways to deal with the influx of refugees especially Syrians who are fleeing for their dear lives. 

The fact that developing nations host the lion’s share (86%) of the total number of the 19.5 million refugees and forced migrants worldwide (Amnesty International) only suggests that developed countries consider this an alien issue on their list of priorities. This needs to change. The world needs to be reminded of the aftermath of World War II and why and how the 1951 Refugee Convention came into being.

It is also my prayer that leaders of countries such as our neighboring Kenya who have recently threatened to stop hosting refugees and repatriate those that are already in refugee settlements such as Dadaab will base their final decision on the cessation clauses and the principle of non-refoulement as described in the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees to which Kenya is a party. If any refugee must return to their country of origin, let it not be due to external pressures or emotional outbursts but let it be voluntarily done in safety and with dignity. 

The writer (Davis Uwizeye) works for RLP as an Assessor in the Assessment and Intake Unit. He is also an Independent researcher on matters of Refugee Law and Forced Migration.


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