Refugee crisis: what’s the European fuss about?

“What is wrong with Europe?” This is the question I’m constantly asked as I travel around Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo visiting Oxfam's humanitarian and development programs. Indeed, every night on TV, people here see images of a heavily divided Europe, unable to cope with the arrival of more than 500,000 refugees and other migrants equivalent to less than 0.1% of the European Union’s population of over 500 million people.

There are 28 countries in the European Union —most with national per capita incomes that far exceed those of most African countries—yet on TV people here see barbed wired fences and police charging against desperate families. And they here the remarks of our European politicians heartlessly referring to quotas.

In Northern Uganda, a colleague from a local humanitarian organization politely asks me the same question: “What is going on in Europe?!” Around us, refugee settlements host almost 200,000 South Sudanese refugees, who fled here when civil war erupted in South Sudan in December 2013. Uganda has a total refugee population of almost 700,000 representing more than 1.8% of the population of 37.5 million people.

Here in Northern Uganda there is no barbed wire, and no police barriers. Instead, large plots of land were prepared for settlements. Materials for the construction of simple huts were delivered, and local and international NGOs provided support and expertise. All of this under the strict supervision of the Office of the Prime Minister.

There were—and still are—many challenges. One sensitive issue is the level of services provided to refugees compared to what is available for the local population. Northern Uganda is one of the poorest regions in Africa, still recovering from the terror of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which resulted in the displacement of 1.5 million North Ugandans. Today, even basic services like drinking water, health care, and education are of poor quality, and it often takes hours for the people to get there. It is not fair, some say, when refugees are provided with drinking water and schools while nothing improves for the local population.

In order to prevent tensions between the local population and refugees, Uganda adopted a special law: a third of the money spent on aid should go to the local population. A great example of how both groups can benefit from aid is a highly innovative water-treatment plant, set up by Oxfam and our local partner CEFORD, in the Rhino Camp area near Arua. At the plant, a solar-powered system pumps water from over 100 meters deep and distributes it through miles of water hoses to both refugee settlements and local communities. Dozens of water points, hundreds of water taps. Oxfam and CEFORD employed both refugees and locals to build the plant and dig the trenches for the water hoses, providing families with incomes that make them less dependent on food aid, and helped them regain their self-determination and dignity.

Lucy Alomo, a 35-year-old mother told me about the violence still raging in South Sudan, saying bluntly, "I know I will not return home for a long time." She tells me she hopes to save some money from crop revenues, and, some day, to start a business. Lucy’s five-year-old son Attak will go to school here in Uganda, and one day he will likely try to find a scarce job, like so many Ugandan youth will do.

Yet there is no hate speech for them in Northern Uganda.

“So what is wrong with Europe?” I’m asked. And when I am not able to give a proper answer, I'm ashamed. I'm shocked to see the developments in Europe from afar. Europe, and indeed the whole international community, has often looked away from refugee crises—be they in Africa, or for the past five years, in Syria and its neighboring countries.

It is, of course, a tragic reality of our world: global media are on top of every new crisis, but they leave as fast as they arrive, on to the next news story. And once a spotlight is gone, the funds for assistance to refugees dry up. The global political will to fund aid, take political and diplomatic measures, or to intervene, quickly evaporates, and the result is more human suffering, continued violence, and despair for the millions of people who are trapped in the conflicts of South Sudan, Syria, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of the Congo. Neighboring, often poor, countries carry the burden of these crises, and to make things worse, European countries respond by cutting aid budgets for the poorest and most vulnerable.
There is still great promise and hope for a better future among the millions of refugees like Lucy and Attak. We should learn from them and Northern Uganda that it is not about how much one can afford to share, but how much one is willing to share.

And so, I ask you: what is wrong with Europe?

This entry posted by Farah Karimi (@Farah_Karimi), Executive Director, Oxfam Novib (Netherlands), on 25 September 2015.

Photo: Camp for internally displaced people, Juba, South Sudan, May 2014. More than 4 million people remain in urgent need in South Sudan following the conflict that broke out in December 2013. Over 2 million people have fled their homes and sought refuge within South Sudan or in neighboring countries. Oxfam has reached more than 920,000 people affected by this crisis with life-saving essentials. Credit: Keiran Doherty/Oxfam

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