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World Refugee Day

World Refugee Day: Grassroots groups support African refugees in Covid-19 struggle

Hundreds of refugees from African countries were evicted from a camp they were occupying in Cape Town on 1 March 2020.
Hundreds of refugees from African countries were evicted from a camp they were occupying in Cape Town on 1 March 2020. AFP - RODGER BOSCH

Lockdowns and restricted movement due to the coronavirus are a challenge to everyone across Africa, but add an extra layer of difficulty for refugees, who are just trying to survive. On World Refugee Day, RFI speaks to refugee leaders in Kenya and South Africa who are working to help their fellow refugees – and others trying to feed and house themselves.

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“We are having a hard time under Covid-19, where everyone is finding it difficult to survive,” says Gilbert Asukulu, the founder of refugee-led organisation L’Afrikana in Nairobi.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, sub-Saharan Africa hosts more than 26 percent of the world's refugee population.

Normally, Asukulu, a native of Bukavu, Democratic Republic of Congo, runs various programs to help refugees and vulnerable Kenyans from job training, including handicrafts and computer skills, to language courses in English, Swahili and French. L’Afrikana also provides free WiFi to the poorest, so they can keep up with family back home.

“It’s all about integration. We don’t just focus on refugees. People used to come to our facilities for all these services, and we had to stop immediately” after the pandemic was announced, Asukulu tells RFI.

“We closed everything, but focused on services – like food and mask distribution,” he says. L’Afrikana used its budget for the rest of the year and used it to buy these essentials, helping 600 people, but it was not enough.

Evictions in pandemic

During a door-to-door food distribution where L’Afrikana staff gave out kits with rice, beans, wheat flour and cooking oil, the landlord came up to the door of one of their beneficiaries, a woman with five adopted children, to evict her.

“The landlord came to evict them because they could not pay rent for the past two months,” says Asukulu.

L’Afrikana spoke to the landlord about the giving him some money for the rent so the children would still have shelter.

“Too many people who are refugees have too many problems right now, because it is not easy here. People are being evicted from their houses,” he says, adding that this is one of the most common problems during the pandemic.

Those who cannot go out and work to pay their rent and feed their families fall through the cracks. They rely on refugee organisations because there is no provision made by the Kenyan government, he says, adding that many refugees are on the move, as they keep being evicted from their homes.

“The whole burden falls on us,” says Asukulu.

Although L’Afrikana partners with bigger international aid agencies, they are a grassroots organisation. After the money ran out, they crowdfunded and asked donors for more funds to help the most vulnerable.

The group works with community leaders too, those who understand the needs of their people. The leaders come to L’Afrikana with what the community needs, and the group goes to the community to verify that this is actually the case before providing them with help.

“Covid-19 has not made it easy for refugees and refugee-led organisations,” says Asukulu.

“We get the first cries for help and then we take the lead, but there are people who are in a very difficult situation right now,” he says.

Good news for refugees in South Africa

On the eve of World Refugee Day, the South Africa High Court ruled that refugees, special permit holders from Lesotho, Angola and Zimbabwe, and asylum seekers who are legally in South Africa will be eligible for a coronavirus grant of 18 euros after the Social Development Ministry tried to bar “foreigners” from receiving the aid.

“This is a positive move,” says Mary Magdalene Tal, one of the founders of the refugee-led Whole World Women Association (WWWA) in Cape Town.

Tal says that refugees in South Africa have had to cope with increased food insecurity and a rise in cases of gender-based violence during the movement restrictions in the country to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

WWWA has been working with partners in the field to understand the problems refugees are facing in light of the pandemic measures.

“In the refugee community, this is an even bigger challenge – we’re already at the bottom. We are at the lowest of all the classifications of people,” she says.

Part of her group’s efforts are trying to give refugees the right information in dealing with the virus, especially as guidelines and information changes all the time, she says.

Tal was heartened that the UN refugee agency’s regional office in Cape Town worked with South African government departments to get information on how to prevent the spread of the virus, and then shared this with all the refugee service organisations.

WWWA members in the Cape Town area are urban refugees who do not live in camps, making the dissemination of information even harder.

“People asked me, ‘Is it true refugees are being used in the hospital as guinea pigs for the coronavirus vaccine?’” she says. “This is what we are facing—false information.”

Not knowing what to do to prevent the spread of Covid-19 has heightened stress levels and depression in refugees.

“We need to deal with this. Not a short-term solution, but a long-term one,” she says.

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