Permanent Resettlement is Not a Reality for 99 Percent of Refugees

Caroline Anderson is a writer with the IMB. She currently lives in Southeast Asia. Her childhood in Asia consisted of two important ingredients: braving hot chili peppers and telling people about Jesus.


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% of refugees will remain permanently displaced.

IMB missionaries share that when refugees in South Africa are never permanently resettled, it means they will live the rest of their lives in inadequate housing or renting a single room for an entire family. It means receiving prompt and proper medical care is not guaranteed, access to education is uncertain and the opportunity to work is denied.

Permanent resettlement is defined by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) 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 UNHCR prioritizes relocating the most vulnerable—widows, widows with children and refugees coming from highly volatile countries.

Refugees in South Africa

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.

IMB missionaries Gail Davis, who serves in the city of Cape Town, and Julie Yngsdal, who serves in Durban, say the chance of permanent resettlement is bleak. They say the responsibility to provide services, benefits and rights to refugees is often 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 for 10 to 15 years to be granted refugee status. She says of the 20,000 asylum seekers who come in a year, only four are given refugee status. Every year, they must renew their asylum status. If they fail to do so, they will be arrested, thrown in prison and fined.

Asylum seekers are not allowed to work, which Davis says forces them to find creative ways to support their families. People with refugee status are only allowed to get jobs that South Africans cannot do, and those jobs are rare.

Yngsdal says many refugees in Durban are resigned to their displacement, but relocation is still a desire. 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 says.

Davis and Yngsdal say refugees in South Africa live in constant fear because of the 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 will 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 says 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 for protection against violence refugees in Durban live in closely-knit communities.

Most live below the poverty level and survive on one meal a day.

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Source: Church Leaders