Ending the 'migration crisis' means creating decent and liveable lives. The ability to become self-reliant in even the most disadvantaged of circumstances is worthy of illumination and support.
If we do not get our needs met where we are, we will go elsewhere. This is called migration – and self-reliance. This is the story of thousands of migrants who have followed the African migratory routes to Europe in past and recent years, leaving their homes in order to seek protection, find jobs, and build lives for themselves. However, Amnesty International has reported that over 1,700 people have already died this year trying to leave North Africa’s coast for Europe’s shore. On 19 April, an estimated 800 migrants drowned at sea, prompting an emergency summit of European leaders. Although the majority of current migrants reaching North Africa have a strong claim to refugee status, others already are refugees – yet have found no ways to survive in their usually neighbouring, and equally impoverished, host countries. The lack of options compels many people to leave places in which, had assistance for livelihoods been available, they might have stayed.
Following incidents like the recent Mediterranean crisis, policy-makers usually ask, “how do we stop the arrivals?” Yet I believe a different question needs to be posed: “how do we help refugees access resources and build lives where they are?”
Throughout eastern Africa, I have seen how livelihoods-training and resources for small businesses – for refugees and internally displaced people – lead to the stable lives that an income and a sense of purpose can bring. People undoubtedly should have the right to freedom of movement, which includes accessing legal routes to migration and the ability to seek asylum in the global north. However, there are hundreds of thousands of refugees who have reached their first host country and not sought onward migration. Many refugees have found institutional support or independent ways to create livelihoods. I am now on a National Geographic grant in the small east African country of Uganda to talk to these people. I am here to learn how the refugees who have stayed survive.
What do you do if you don’t go?
On the wide, pot-holed roads of Kampala, Uganda’s capital, shaded by overgrown mango and avocado trees, I find organisations serving refugees. And on loud, busy streets lined with vendors roasting bananas and frying cassava in round bowls of hot oil, I find organisations that refugees themselves have created to serve each other. Although sometimes providing meals, what they offer is mainly skill-building training, not material aid. I visit business workshops, English classes, programmes offering training in sewing and baking, even mushroom growing.
What I find, again and again among the refugees of Kampala, are people who want to work and build lives for their families, and feed their children by themselves. I am reminded of a quote by African author Emman Ikoku. “Self-reliance,” he writes, “is the oldest idea. It is the story of normal human existence.”
The focus of these organisations on helping refugees become employable is possible because Uganda’s laws are more lenient than many African countries towards refugees. Uganda grants refugees the right to work and freedom of movement, granting them the possibility to contribute to the country’s economy and society. And, as more and more refugees have followed the global trend of urbanization, moving to cities instead of refugee camps when they cross borders, refugee policy has changed as well. After a 2009 policy by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) legitimised urban areas as places for refugees to live, more international aid organisations have begun operating out of cities, focused on helping refugees achieve self-reliance in their host country.
Leaning forward across her desk at the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), an international organisation supporting forcibly displaced people, Eugenie, an arts and crafts trainer and Rwandan refugee, points towards the colourful paper bead necklaces and carefully sewn purses on the table, proof of her students’ hard work. She sets them aside in order to lay her arms down, staring at me intently. “When I first came to Uganda,” she says, her accent a beautiful blend of French, English, and east African, “I used to cry and cry. But then, once I started making jewelry and selling it, I put my head back and started buying the good quality bread. You see?” I nod. “If you make your money, it gives you confidence,” she continues, “It gives you courage.”
The many selves in self-reliance
An artist named Waka, a refugee from the DRC, was recently given a small grant to rent a workshop and selling-space in the city. Three months of rent paid upfront was more money than he could have hoped to save up, but is what is needed in order to turn his art into a sustainable enterprise with a storefront. He has been painting pictures and silk-screening t-shirts since I met him in 2011, and long before that, too. Trained at an arts school in the DRC, he fled with his family to Uganda almost ten years ago and began walking with his art around town, looking for potential buyers. He has dreamed of having a space for his business since then. One donation, roughly equal to 150 dollars, has enabled this. “I have had the name I will paint on the sign in my head for a long time,” he says to me, smiling, “It will be called 'Self-Reliant and Integrated Arts Business'. Integrated because we are integrating into Uganda, and self-reliant because I am doing this so I can survive on my own.”
What I find in Kampala, again and again, is that there are many selves in self-reliance. The vast majority of the refugees I interview here who have their own small businesses (meaning that they have enough materials and skills to sell art, vegetables, or fish around town or from a small shack) have received support from people or institutions. In Eugenie’s case, a friend of a friend agreed to train her in jewelry-making for a small fee; for another refugee named Nyota, it was an African organisation that donated the sewing machines that enabled her to pursue her craft. I think about the stories I hear now, and remember the bigger one they are encompassed within. Self-reliance is the oldest story. This does not mean that people are surviving solely on their own, but instead receive support – from friends, family, strangers and institutions – at various stages in order to live independently from aid.
The struggle for many people from so-called developing countries to create their own livelihoods is entwined with global inequality, poverty at a macro-structural as well as a micro scale. Migration is part of this story, too, I think, a self-reliance strategy unto itself. The story of the hundreds of migrants – many of whom might have been granted refugee status – who drowned at sea in April, the hundreds of thousands who wait on North Africa’s shore to go, and the millions of refugees and forced migrants who are waiting elsewhere – is testimony to this. Their situation also has to do with racism, xenophobia, and the reality of privilege’s shadow. Yet not everyone who tries to leave knows this. What migrants know is that they could not find jobs where they were, that they could not live safely, and that sometimes there wasn’t even food to eat even if they’d had the money to buy it. This is the small face of deprivation, which multiplied by thousands, turns into a ‘migration crisis’ just off of Europe’s shores. These migrants – perhaps better labeled as forcibly displaced people - point towards a need for more comprehensive international assistance in host countries, in addition to discussions on host country policies regarding the right to work, and western restrictions of visa quotas.
My question comes again: how do we help people access resources and build lives where they are? I think of Waka and Eugenie, bright resilient refugees who have received that crucial bit of support to start livelihoods in a foreign place. I remember the other refugees I know, those who have dreams but no tools with which to hammer them into place. I look for answers in the livelihoods manuals of international organisations, and in the words of the refugees I meet here in east Africa. My question still remains. I ask it neither because migration is a crime, nor because refugees do not belong in Europe. I ask this question because the ability to become self-reliant in even the most disadvantaged of circumstances is worthy of illumination and support. Indeed, it is an artistry unto itself.
About the author: Evan Easton-Calabria is a PhD candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford and holds a Master's from Oxford's Refugee Studies Centre. This research was generously funded by a grant from National Geographic.