Fleeing Putin’s War
On the news this week we are seeing pictures of tired refugees arriving at hastily-made help facilities in the countries that border Ukraine. They are offering them hot food, some clothing, nappies, and toilet facilities. It is a shocking sight when for 75 years the public in the UK have never seen refugee families coming from northern Europe, although refugees from non-European countries are constantly in the news. Notably, some of the border countries like Hungary and Poland that have refused to take refugees from outside Europe are now welcoming the Ukrainian refugees.
A church leader from the Ukrainian church in London was on the television standing in front of a huge pile of goods donated in response to an appeal by the Polish community. He was explaining what they needed. Bedding and Pampers were on the list, and things for children. But he also emphasised that they required new goods, not old.
He has obviously encountered the tendency of some people just to off-load discarded items to such emergency appeals, thus increasing the sorting problem for volunteers. Some choices have to be made about what items are the most needed for the valuable space in any vehicle booked to go to these border areas.
First house past the border
I have experienced living in a country which faced a sudden influx of refugees. We were in Botswana in 1976 at the time of the school protests in Soweto. Over the next weeks and months, hundreds of teenagers fled across the border, fearful of the retribution from the apartheid government, which was trying to round up the ringleaders.
The route taken by those fleeing was to get dropped off at a place a few kilometres from the actual border, as they did not dare to go near the official border (where they would be picked up by the South African authorities). So they had to trek cross-country, through farmland, at night, in winter, and get into Botswana at another place. As it happened, we were living in the first house after the border of one of the best of these night crossing places.
There actually are limits
At dawn, there would be a knock at the door, and a couple of shivering teenagers would be there. They would politely ask the way to the nearest police station. They knew that what they had to do was declare themselves refugees as soon as possible after arrival. When this first happened, we tried to respond generously – giving them bread and tea, an old blanket and so on. But we soon realised that the numbers were growing and something more organised had to happen.
After a few days, the Botswana Christian Council swung into action. They organised reception centres. But within a few weeks, the need to feed and manage this surge of refugees required more funds than could be quickly gained within Botswana. The Secretary of the BCC, our friend Rev James Ndebele, set out for Geneva to plead for aid from international church agencies. I do not know the details of this as tragically he died in a road accident on his return.
No quick solution
Eventually, after a few months, the Government decreed that these young South African refugees were not allowed to remain in the towns, as there was community friction. They were to be sent to the north where there was a refugee camp that had recently been vacated by refugees who had recently returned to their homeland (Rhodesia, then about to change to Zimbabwe under Mugabe). The government also conscripted the social worker from the Anglican diocese to work in that camp. Over the next year, we heard from her about some of the problems she encountered.
That camp had been more or less self-sufficient in vegetables as the Zim refugees had been excellent gardeners. But the South African teenagers from Soweto had never learned to grow vegetables and did not want to stay long. They were given a choice of moving from Botswana by signing up to the liberation movements (which had reception centres in other African countries) or of taking one of the few scholarships on offer if they qualified.
Botswana, then struggling with its own youth unemployment, did not want these refugees competing against the locals for jobs. Above all, not competing for women.
Some 40 years later, in South Africa, I had the chance to observe how the new South Africa treats refugees. In Durban the refugees were mostly either Congolese or Zimbabwean. They all had to register with the authorities and keep their papers up to date. They were allowed to stay in town, and do whatever work they could find, as there was no subsidy available from the government.
Many Zimbabweans slip easily into employment. The better educated ones take jobs in education or nursing. But the less qualified are forced to take the worst jobs that are shunned by the locals, such as night security in dangerous posts, or portering in a local mattress factory notorious for poisonous fumes.
M’sieu, donnez-moi un boulot!
The francophone Congolese faced bigger problems getting work, but they are enterprising and assist each other. By sheer organisation and diligence, they managed to take over most of the car-guarding positions in the best parts of town. They would keep records of their customers, unlike those doing the job more haphazardly.
But the sad thing was that some of them actually had higher qualifications, in health professions for instance, but were unable to work in that field because of the language barrier and non-recognition of qualifications. There were urban legends of qualified doctors acting as car-guards. Eventually the British Council assisted a voluntary project to run a special class for those refugees wanting language classes for medical work.
Populist antagonism to migrants was also on the rise as more of them arrived, especially from Zimbabwe, once Mugabe had destroyed the economy there. In one year, a nasty little sticker was placed on lamp-posts, which proclaimed, in Zulu, a message which meant “This land belongs to the Zulus. Go away all foreigners or we will kill you.” One Sunday, we ceremoniously burnt a copy of this sticker in a local church.
Sadly these populist movements have continued to arise sporadically in some cities in South Africa. During Covid in 2020 there were attacks in Cape Town (see posters in the featured photo).
In Kwa-Zulu Natal, while I was there in the 00s, the rising resentment against migrants resulted in attacks, some of them life-threatening. Refugees had to flee whatever accommodation they had found, and their belongings were then stolen or burned. At least twice this resulted in desperate mothers with children fleeing to the churches for help.
The churches’ response
The bishops requested parishes to open their buildings for emergency accommodation. Within 24 hours, a parish hall would fill up with frightened mothers and toddlers. Parishioners would then be asked to donate whatever was needed. Top of the list of needs was toilet paper, Pampers and washing powder.
And then food. Some parishes had to organise communal hot food (quite easy when the local culture, both African and Indian, thrives on hospitality that involves cooking in large quantities. Most families already have huge pots). Fortunately after a week or so, the local authority and community leaders were able to calm the tension, and the refugees were able to disperse back into the community again.
“Plus Ça Change…”
I was reminded of all this by the sight of that church leader speaking in front of a pile of donated goods. He was speaking from London, but it brought back memories of what it is like to be on the front-line of improvised aid for the refugees.
In my experience, from a different part of this planet, there are themes here about the experience and treatment of refugees that apply universally. Sadly, refugee emergencies are likely to increase in coming decades.