Going Beyond Emergency Relief


As South Africa moves haltingly toward some form fo majority rule and its 40,000 refugees return home, prospects for genuine development are good. Yet decades of conflict throughout southern Africa - in which South africa's apartheid regime has played an instrumental role - have created a legacy that will plague South Africa's neighbors well into the next century. Colonial state repression and indigenous armed struggles toward decolonization caused nearly 250,000 refugees to flee Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and 50,000 to flee Namibia (then South West Africa). Having achieved independence in 1980 and 1990, respectively, these countries have been struggling with limited resources, constitutional restrictions imposed by international mediators during peace negotiations, and meager international assistance in their efforts to overcome the gross inequities that colonial rule left behind.

Angola and Mozambique, in contrast, have not known peace since their guerrilla movements both achieved independence in 1975 following decade-long wars of liberation. Today nearly 500,000 Angolans are refugees (in Zaire, Zambia, and Namibia), as are nearly 1.5 million Mozambicans (in Malawi, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Zambia). And, as the United States Committee for Refugees (USCR) reports, refugee populations are paralleled by even greater numbers of internally displaced people. While Mozambicans struggle to consolidate their fragile peace, Angolans - despite internationally supervised and endorsed elections - can only yearn to end the recurring hostilities.

In today's war-related lexicon, low-intensity conflicts characteristically avoid direct military confrontations and target civilian populations, despite the Geneva Convention and Protocols. The UNITA (Angola) and RENAMO (Mozambique) guerrilla forces, which have some indigenous followed but more significant support from the apartheid regime, have destabilized Angola's and Mozambique's respective economies and devastated their societies.

The human suffering in these countries is overwhelming. Infant and child mortality are the highest in the world, and more than one million people have died. People cultivate less than 10 percent of the arable land because it is literally unsafe to farm. In Unprooted Angolans, Thomas Brennan states that Angola has the world's highest amputee rate. In Mozambique, officially the world's poorest country, men have been killed in front of family members, women and girls have been raped, and boys have been press-ganged into joining RENAMO. Hundreds of thousands of now-orphaned children have been traumatized, forced to witness or even participate in torture and killings of family and community members. The social impacts of these brutal "wars against the people" will long reverberate.


Refugee continue to flee guerrilla attacks against civilians in Angola and Mozambique despite negotiated ceasefires, scheduled election, and the pressence of international observers. According to the Organization of African Unity (OAU) - unlike the UN's more restrictive focus on individual persecution - "refugee" is someone who has fled a country because of external aggression or events seriously disturbing the public order. Refugee influxes seriously strain host populations' schools, clinics, and other social-service facilities and physical infrastructure and distort local economies. In Malawi and Swaziland, refugee comprise over 10 percent of the population, outnumbering nationals by ten to one in the most crowded districts. Many refugees are supported in camps or settlements by their host countries and various international humanitarian agencies.

Rather than perpetual emergency relief, those providing assistance are encouraged to help develop "refugee affected" areas that unite refugee and host populations. Despite outsiders' fears, this arrangement has not dissuaded refugees from returning home when conditions permit.

Refugees are resourceful at adapting bartering, or selling resources to satisfy basic needs and support a variety of cultural practices - such as proper weddings and funerals and education for children - but their integration and well-being almost everywhere remain precarious. Throughout the region, they are frustrated by restricted freedom of movement (many camps are fenced with barbed wire and administrator's written permission is required to leave) despite international refugee conventions and host government's pronouncements concerning refugees' rights to travel and to work. Lacking secure legal status and being unaware of their rights, refugees are vulnerable to harassment and exploitation. In agriculture, refugees have little or no land for gardens or farms, are discouraged from investing, pay exorbitant rents, and are vulnerable in land disputes. In labor markets, refugees are underpaid. In nonagricultural production, as David Keen points out in Refugees: Rationing the Right to Life, their activities must be clandestine since they can't go to towns or obtain work permits and business licenses. Family disintegration is widespread.

The South African government is unique in considering Mozambican refugees as "illegal economic migrants;" according to the USCR, it deported nearly 50,000 in 1991. Others are imprisoned before being sent to work on white-owned farms, sold as slaves, or forcibly recruited into RENAMO. South Africa's overcrowded, economically marginal "homelands" represent the only legal residence for some 250,000 Mozambican refugees.

The refugee influx compounds existing pressures on local resources and facilities in areas with high unemployment, scarce land, and inadequate educational and health facilities. In addition, South Africa's 1991 census figures indicate growing numbers, including refugees, living in mass informal urban settlements of shacks. How refugees cope under such precarious conditions - and whether their development potential is realized, latent, or eroded - will have important implications for subsequent development.


Despite the assumption that refugees are disoriented, helpless, and incapable of solving their problems, in their escape refugees have already demonstrated considerable ability to adapt to change. The principal aim that people have during crises is to preserve an acceptable way of life - not only security and material well-being also social cohesion. To do this, refugees overwhelmingly choose to live among local host families, rather than in formally organized camps or settlements, as a way to minimize their losses though continuing their social, economic, and cultural traditions.

In Rising from the Ashes, Mary Anderson and Peter Woodrow observe that the inner capacities and social structures of refugees typically provide the basis for development. Refugees show the most progress when they can adapt their experiences and skills to actively participate in reconstructing their lives. For example, because monthly food aid often lasts only two weeks, refugees produce their own food, share with others, and try to find ways of acquiring money to buy more food and satisfy other needs. When these options aren't feasible, people depend on local wage labor, and wages in remote areas typically can't support even one person, explains Susanna Smith in the Oxfam book Front Line Africa: The Right to a Future. Thus, migration is common, although the condition vary from country to country. Left behind are the vast majority of refugees: women, children, and the elderly.

Indigenous network can help vulnerable refugees and dislocated children. For example, in Zimbabwe, Mozambicans' networks distribute food, construct schools and clinics, select members for health-care training, and settle domestics and community disputes. Refugee-based voluntary associations, too, demonstrate solidarity, self-reliance, and dynamism - a great contrast to the apathy and disorganization that outsiders commonly perceive among refugees. However, refugees are a varied group. Those of prime working age can earn money more easily, while women, children, the elderly, and the disabled fall behind. In addition, social and economic resources can affect wage-earning ability, so that the poorest households - such as those headed by women - may be excluded from such networks by their inability to commit resources for longterm development or in times of other households' crises.


Given that few refugees obtain citizenship or permanent residence, repatriation is generally the most appropriate choice. It involves the fewest adjustments for successful adaptation following the trauma of fleeing, and the vast majority who repatriate do so without aid from international organizations. Successful repatriations are those in which aid practitioners respect and work with refugees who remain the main decision makers. Refugees are "pulled" home by improved security and their fear of losing the resources they left behind as others resettle in former zones of conflict. Returning refugees regain power, stability, and control over their lives by reestablishing their social identity or by using skills they developed in exile. Refugees are also "pushed" home by the lack of education or economic opportunities and pressures from humanitarian agencies and the host society's government.

On the other hand, refugees who have acculturated and integrated and no longer identify with their home area, own non-movable property, or have acquired good, secure employment are less likely to repatriate. With no living community to which they can return, returnees must completely rebuild social networks and communities. Returning refugees are sometimes regarded as strangers because of beliefs, practices, and language they acquired during exile.

Unassisted repatriated restores refugees' sense of their own effectiveness and importance. Organized repatriation, on the other hand, gives refugees little voice in the procedures involved in their return, unless a community has its own repatriation organizations. Despite their predominantly rural backgrounds, returning refugees prefer to settle in towns, given the little opportunity they had for agricultural activities during their exile. However, explains Elias Habte-Selassie in Beyond Conflict in the Horn, nearly all economic activities in small towns are in the service sector, and productive activities are limited almost exclusively to agriculture.

In the end, most refugees return to their original homes or villages, but their diverse needs require flexible assistance programs. Experience suggests that longer development aid to areas of return should apply to the people who remained, as well as those who were refugees or internally displaced. However, refugees' experiences in exile and the less than ideal conditions at home in the aftermath of a low-intensity conflict complicate the prospects.

Most Mozambicans are eager to repatriate once peace and safety have been restored. (When discussing recent returnees, slightly more is known about Mozambique than Angola.) More than 300,000 have repatriated since 1987. Nearly all return with little or no assistance to a homeland still in conflict, and as they return, others leave. They seek to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible, stating, as reported in African Farmer, that "all we want from donors are those things that we can't produce ourselves." However, given the devastating recent drought and ruined social and economic infrastructure, their attempts may be severely constrained. How to deal with the 1.5 million AK-47s "on the loose" remains unclear; violent crime is already widespread.

The rapid urban influx since the mid 1980s places tremendous pressure on the available material and service resources in cities and towns in Angola and Mozambique. To date, returned refugees, who are highly concentrated in few well-protected zones, place great pressure on agricultural land and fragile ecological environments. In urban areas, these retunees add to the swollen ranks of the unemployed. For the 60 percent of Mozambique's population (or more) living in absolute poverty, privatilization of quality farm land, health care, and education means being excluded from the means of subsistence, survival, and improvement.


With refugees formulating goals that are broader than simply securing the next mouthful of food, those who work with them must cast off persistent prejudices that classify refugees as passive, helpless, ignorant victims. Intervention on their behalf must go beyond providing emergency relief. It should focus on helping people implement their own social and economic strategies, including their indigenous cooperative efforts at the household and community levels.

The refugees' emergent roles as producers and consumers at the local level need to be integrated with economic and social development at the regional and national levels. Their urban linkages and patterns of migration will likely play important roles in this integration. Successful reintegration will strengthen food, economic, and political dimensions of security. As a result, it will diminish the likelihood of violent conflict that often comes when a newly urbanized population tests a city's limited economic opportunities (as in South Africa today), and in relations with post-apartheid South Africa concerning the legacy of international labor migration as the latter strives to solve its own serious employment crisis and social problems.


Hilary Andersson, Mozambique: A War Against the People, Macmillan, 1992.

Susan Forbes-Martin, Refugee Women, Zed Books, 1992.

J. Stephen Morrison, The Long Road Home: Angola's Post-War Inheritance, U.S. Committee for Refugees, 1991.

U.S. Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survery, 1992.

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