RICHMOND, Va.—Permanent resettlement is an elusive dream for many of the world’s 79.5 million forcibly displaced people.
For some refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people, resettlement is as close as a lamp in the window of a neighboring house. For others, it is a light glimmering on the horizon. For most, the light of permanent resettlement is like chasing the setting sun.
Last year, 107,800 refugees were resettled. Millions are still waiting, and the average time it takes refugees to be resettled is between 17 and 18 years. However, the reality is that 99 percent of refugees will remain permanently displaced.
Southern Baptist missionaries report that when refugees in South Africa are not resettled permanently, it means they will live the rest of their lives in inadequate housing or renting a single room for an entire family. It means no guarantees of prompt and proper medical care, access to education or work opportunities.
Permanent resettlement is defined by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees as the “selection and transfer of refugees from a State in which they have sought protection to a third State that has agreed to admit them—as refugees—with permanent residence status.”
Globally, the UN prioritizes relocating the most vulnerable—widows, widows with children and refugees coming from highly volatile countries.
Asylum seekers in South Africa face bleak prospects
At the end of 2019, South Africa hosted 586,000 refugees and asylum seekers. The majority are from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Burundi, Zimbabwe, Rwanda and South Sudan.
International Mission Board missionaries Gail Davis, who serves in the city of Cape Town, and Julie Yngsdal, who serves in Durban, consider the chance of permanent resettlement bleak. They say the responsibility to provide services, benefits and rights to refugees often is delayed indefinitely when interviews are not conducted and processing paperwork that will grant asylum seekers the status of ‘refugee’ is delayed.
Some of Yngsdal’s friends have been waiting 10 to 15 years to be granted refugee status. Of the 20,000 asylum seekers who come in a year, only four are given refugee status, she noted. Every year, they must renew their asylum status. If they fail to do so, they will be arrested, thrown in prison and fined.
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Asylum seekers are not allowed to work, which forces them to find creative ways to support their families, Davis said. People with refugee status only are allowed to get jobs that South Africans cannot do, and those jobs are rare.
Yngsdal said many refugees in Durban are resigned to their displacement, but they still desire relocation. Many will sign up for any opportunity, whether it’s legitimate or a scam, offering hope of finding a permanent home.
“Will their lives get better? I always have hope. Have I seen their lives get better? Only for a very few of them,” Davis said.
Strong anti-refugee sentiment in South Africa
Davis and Yngsdal said refugees in South Africa live in constant fear because of rampant and violent xenophobia.
“While these refugees have come to Durban in search of a better life, sadly they have discovered South Africa to be anti-refugee,” Yngsdal says. “The South Africans look upon the refugee people with disdain and hatred, accusing them of taking all their jobs, causing all sorts of crimes, overburdening the healthcare system and schools and bringing with them all sorts of illegal activities.”
To disguise their accents, refugee parents often tell their children to be silent when riding public transportation to avoid abuse. People with refugee status can go to government medical clinics, but it’s common for them to have to wait until all South Africans in the clinic are seen. Often, they are turned away.
Davis said South African law guarantees a right to education for all children, but school principals have the authority to decide whether to admit refugee children.
Refugee camps are not allowed, and refugees in Cape Town cannot live in local neighborhoods, so they must live on the outskirts of communities or rent costly rooms. Davis says she knows of a family of 10 who share one room. Yngsdal says refugees in Durban live in close-knit communities to protect against violence.
Missionaries seek to meet needs
Most live below the poverty level and survive on one meal a day.
“Some [refugees] talk about going back because life here is very, very hard for them, physically and emotionally. But no one ever does go back,” Yngsdal says. “The political situation is such that if they return as young, able men, they stand a chance of being kidnapped and conscripted into the army to fight—which they don’t want to do, because those who are taken are never seen again.”
As Davis talked to refugees and asked what their needs were, they identified learning English was their biggest need. Davis uses a curriculum developed by the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board that teaches English by using the Gospel of Mark.
When Davis sees patterns in the needs of refugees, she talks with Send Relief about ways to provide aid. Send Relief projects have provided blankets for refugees and food for feeding programs.
Davis encourages Christian refugees to pursue ministry training. One Burundian man is attending seminary. Davis and her husband planted a new church this year, and they partner with a refugee pastor from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Yngsdal and her husband David also teach English to refugees and have many opportunities to share the gospel. The Yngsdals host Bible studies and discipleship groups and also provide food, clothes and money for schooling fees for those in need.
The majority of refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa will spend their days in poverty and peril. Most will not rise above their physical circumstances. However, a steadily increasing number are spending their days in communion with Jesus, the ultimate provider.
Greece a “pass through” to northern Europe
At the end of 2019, Greece hosted 186,200 refugees and asylum seekers. The majority were Syrian, Persian, Afghani, Iraqi, Kurdish and Pakistani.
An IMB worker said Greece is a transition point—most refugees who pass through the Mediterranean nation are headed to northern Europe. The refugee’s stay in Greece can be a lengthy one, and once they reach their country of resettlement, it can be a drawn-out process to gain permanent resettlement.
Receiving approval for permanent resettlement is becoming harder and harder due to the volume of refugees entering Greece. Refugees in Greece who are waiting struggle with depression and ongoing trauma incurred on their journey.
“The stress and lack of resources take a toll on families,” said the IMB worker, whose name is withheld for security reasons. “Domestic abuse, drug and alcohol use, suicide attempts, panic attacks, self-mutilation—these are the stories I have heard this week alone.”
This summer a group of like-minded Christians hosted a trauma healing group for 16 refugee women.
“The very nature of displacement leads to gospel-sharing conversations,” the IMB worker noted. “Without a community or religious leaders, these refugees are able to ask questions about God and Jesus that they have had for years, read the word of God for the first time and hear truth without fear.”
Meeting physical needs is another way to help displaced refugees.
“When we show the love of Christ through meeting felt needs, whether this is through providing for physical needs or educational needs, people see a difference in Christians and the way they were treated in their passport country,” the IMB worker added.