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Against all odds – finding hope among refugees and host communities in Djibouti

Benjamin Burckhart's picture
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Courtesy of Benjamin BurckhartIt was August of last year when our team landed in Djibouti to figure out how the World Bank could help countries in the Horn of Africa cope with the long running challenge of forced displacement.  Following the publication of the report, Forced Displacement and Mixed Migration in the Horn of Africa, everyone had a clear picture of the scale of the problem.  The governments of Djibouti, Ethiopia and Uganda had expressed their commitment to dealing with the protracted displacement situation in their individual countries; it was now time to act and quickly at that!
 
In the past, any mention of refugee camps and communities hosting displaced people conjured up images of poverty, hunger, and desolation; overshadowed by a deep sense of hopelessness. There is no underestimating the pain and dislocation of forced displacement, but Djibouti showed me that things could be different. I saw resilient communities, still hopeful for a better tomorrow.

With a population under 900,000, Djibouti has had a long term refugee population of over 15,300, mostly Somali nationals. They are concentrated at the Ali Addeh and Holl Holl refugee camps. The startling fact for me was the conditions of the surrounding host populations. They have hosted refugees for 20 years now, even though they themselves are food insecure, have limited access to basic social services and job opportunities. They face a daily struggle for water and wood for fuel. Both refugees and host communities have minimal assets, such as very small holdings of livestock.

And then there is Obock, the closest Djiboutian town to Yemen. Obock has borne the most recent refugee onslaught from the crisis in Yemen. As of May 2016, 6,260 Yemenis were registered as refugees by the Djibouti government, most of them now hosted at the Markazi camp and the rest living in the town of Obock and in Djibouti City. In addition, over 35,500 people of various nationalities have arrived in Djibouti of late: 56 percent are Yemeni nationals; 38 percent are transiting migrants; and 6 percent are Djiboutian returnees. I gathered that Obock was particularly affected given that the Yemeni crisis exacerbated the impacts that migrants have had on the town over the years – nearly 100,000 Horn of Africa migrants transit through Obock every year, desperate to reach the shores of the Middle East and Europe in pursuit of economic opportunities and a better tomorrow.

The first two stops of our August mission took us to Ali Addeh and Holl Holl, both a few hours away from Djibouti city. Along with hosting refugees, the area has also had to cope with the effects of climate change. The situation of the host community was dire following the loss of most of their camels and goats during the past six consecutive years of drought. We learned that both refugee and host-community households depend on unreliable income sources, mainly from charcoal and wood sales, nonagricultural wages, such as domestic labor, and gifts and remittances. Refugees in Ali Addeh camp, who have been there for over 20 years, had resigned themselves to a present and future at the camp.

In sharp contrast, in Obock the Yemenis were arriving at a recently set up tented camp – the Markazi camp. The trauma of the newly arrived was palpable, although mixed with the confidence of it being a temporary situation with an imminent return to their places of origin still a possibility. Even in the face of this optimism, though, it was hard not to despair.  The tragedy of people driven to flee their country due to conflict, and give up on their homes and livelihoods, is overwhelming. However, discussions with members of the host communities in Obock became one of the most unexpected and interesting parts of the mission, and provided a spark of hope. Youssif a fisherman living in Obock, explained to us that some Yemenis are very skilled fishermen and some great farmers. He said that while hosting refugees put pressure on the humble resources of the community, on the other hand collaborating with them and benefitting from their skills presented a real opportunity for the community.
 
Youssif had anticipated one of the conclusions of the recent Forum on New Approaches to Protracted Forced Displacement that took place in the United Kingdom, at Wilton Park, in April this year. One of the ‘Wilton Park principles’ declares: “Refugees and internally displaced people bring tenacity, knowledge, skills and abilities to the communities in which they live. They should not be seen as the passive recipients of humanitarian assistance, but rather should be seen as agents with the human capital to build their own future and contribute to national development and growth.”
 
We have now completed the preparation of the Development Response to Displacement Impacts Project which aims to help the region cope with the long term challenge of forced displacement. The goal of the project is to improve access to basic social services, expand economic opportunities, and boost the capacity to weather extreme climates in communities hosting refugees in Djibouti as well as Ethiopia and Uganda. The focus will be on communities that have experienced negative impacts as a result of hosting refugees, with both host and refugee communities as beneficiaries.
 
If anything, my work on forced displacement has taught me to be cautiously optimistic on the potential for durable solutions. Unlike the residents of Ali Addeh and Holl Holl refugee camps, whose hope has been worn away by the years, the Markazi residents yearn to return home, and I sincerely hope their wish is fulfilled.

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