I spent the last two weeks in Ghana visiting refugee camps and interviewing various individuals associated with refugee management in Ghana. I had the opportunity to speak with representatives from UNHCR, Ghana Refugee Board and CARE International as well as dozens of Liberian and Ivorian refugees. I have worked very closely with refugees in the United States and have had experiences talking to people in similar positions in the United States but even this could not prepare me for the despair that I witnessed in the camps.
The first camp I visited was Budumburam which technically is no longer considered a refugee camp as the people in the community lost their status as refugees in 2012 when Ghana determined that Liberian citizens were no longer considered refugees under the 1951 definition. This change in status resulted in thousands of Liberians returning to their country of origin however thousands more also choose to stay behind because as they put it “We can’t stay here in Ghana but we can’t go back to Liberia”. It’s more commonly referred to as “can’t stay, can’t go” by those still living in the camps. Many of the people who stayed behind fear for their lives if they were to return while other simply don’t have the ability to return or have become increasingly comfortable in Ghana despite the hardships.
The people I met with have been refugees for 15-25 years and for most Ghana is their second country of resettlement as they originally settled as refugees in countries like the Ivory Coast or Sierra Leone but were forced to flee when war broke out there as well. Each of them has a unique story but the underlying theme is pure struggle. One woman was recently hit by a bus while selling items on the side of the road, another woman’s husband moved to the United States and married another woman leaving her and their children behind. One man lost his wife in child birth just this winter. Another has a daughter who turned to prostitution to make money and is now pregnant. I asked them how they get by as most have very unsteady jobs or no jobs at all and the consistent answer was that they live on hope.
Currently, these people have temporary residency status in Ghana and will have to reapply to stay in Ghana but they also have Liberian passports. One woman strongly desires to return to her country of origin but is unable to return because she does not have the funds to get there and UNHCR will no longer help her to return as she no longer has refugee status.
The people here live among filth. Trash is everywhere and many of the piles are on fire with smoke filling the air in the camps. The bathrooms are run by UNHCR but residents have to pay to use the bathrooms and often the price to use the bathroom is simply too high so they relieve themselves elsewhere in the camp. Often behind a building or along a wall of the camp. All over the camp are signs that read “Don’t dump dirt or urinate here. Pay your cedis.” But what do you do when the cost to pee is simply too high?
Elsewhere you’ll find children running around a dirt field outside their school. The school is deemed free except for the fact that parents are required to pay a daily feeding fee of $2.50 cedi which is about 59 cents. According to many parents this fee is simply too high and the food their child is receiving is not adequate so they either have to send their child with extra food or their child goes hungry. The cost and the inadequate food has deterred many parents from sending their children to school. But without school the children have nothing to do all day. The camp lacks recreational activities and the kids don’t have anything else to entertain them so they lay around desperate for change.
The second camp I visited was called Egyeikrom and opened about six years ago in the Central Region of Ghana. The camp hosts mainly Ivorian refugees and is much smaller than Budumburam. UNHCR, Ghana Refugee Board and various NGO’s have a strong presence in the camp and several representatives work full-time there assisting with anything from birth certificates to sanitation. These refugees are still heavily reliant on humanitarian aid and are only expected to pay for food. Things like water, sanitation and health care are all free, for now.
The plan is to slowly wean the refugees off of government services and to empower them to be self-reliant. The camp offers various livelihood trainings and arranges apprenticeships in different trades for the adults living in the camps. The children attend school in the camp and are enrolled in the national feeding program which provides them with one meal a day.
The camp also has a basketball court, hospital and a poultry farm where refugees can work. There is also an abundance of functioning showers and drop holes. All of these services are in stark contrast to Budumburam which no longer receives aid from the government and never received these services to begin with as the camp is much older.
The main concerns in Egyeikrom are access to food and sustainable housing. There is no shortage of food in Ghana however many of the refugees are struggling to make enough money to purchase food for their families. The camp stopped providing free food for the refugees in September 2015 yet the struggles of the camps inhabitants are still evident. The other concern is that approximately 27% of the camps inhabitants are still living in tents provided by UNHCR. These tents have open holes in them which let in mosquitos and rain which make for unhealthy living conditions. The tents also capture the heat which makes it extremely difficult to breathe inside the tent on a hot day. The manager of the camp assured me that all of the tents would be turned into sustainable homes by the end of the year.
Most of the refugees only speak French and my French is very limited so we had conversations in a halting mix of English, French and occasionally Spanish. This made it impossible for me to conduct in depth interviews but I was able to learn more about the people who lived here. Many asked me where I am from and were shocked when they heard that I was from America. One man said, “I didn’t know American’s even knew we existed.” Others grabbed onto my arm and begged me to tell their story, to make sure that their voices are heard.
This was a common theme in both camps, everyone wanted their voices to be heard. In today’s news media, we frequently hear about refugees from the Middle East and of refugees just now fleeing their homes. These stories are important but the stories of those who have been living in exile for over 15 years are also important. The stories of Africans are just as valuable as those of Middle Easterners. The people in these camps are terrified of being forgotten and of dying in a place where they never had the chance to live. Painted onto one of the doors in the refugee camp was a quote that read, “I shall not die, but live…”. And that they do. Everyday waking up to take on another day with limited money and fading hope.