Chad refugee Protection project summary

Here’s a synopsis of our work we did in Chad for those of you interested:

The purpose of the assessment was to provide a sampling of risk and protective factors for protection problems as reported by refugees in Chad. We chose to privilege refugee communities’ perspectives on protection issues so that humanitarian aid and protection staff would be able to identify common ground between refugees’ priorities and their own. We felt it was important to ask about both protective and risk factors in order to gain a holistic understanding of the characteristics and situations that define the most vulnerable individuals within these already desperate populations.

Initial reactions to our questions were almost always indicative of common narratives in camps. These “idioms of distress” (modes of expressing hardship and associated emotional stress) varied somewhat by region, but always involved a shortage of basic needs that was presented the same for everyone. In the east, the idiom was water and firewood. In the South, the idiom was food. These narratives as narratives were not useful in identifying risk and protective factors for two reasons. First, they were applied to all refugees, thus precluding the identification of at-risk or protected subpopulations and individuals. “We are all refugees” was a common phrase, meant to signify that all were desperate and that there were no differences in vulnerability. Second, with further questioning, it was obvious that these narratives were not entirely accurate representations of camp life, even for refugees themselves. In other words, many participants who began interviews with these narratives were able to describe clear differences in livelihoods, security, and other relevant characteristics between refugees in response to a few specific questions.

Our challenge was to use these egalitarian narratives as frameworks for indentifying inequality in risks or protective factors. We did this by listening for elements of these narratives that might be explored to better understand risk and protective factors, and by subverting narratives altogether with questions that asked specifically about differences We thus approached focus groups and interviews by first asking refugees for “problems” or by stating the narratives as we knew them through previous discussion with other participants, and then quickly moving to questions about which refugees had more or fewer of these problems. When we identified a particular at-risk or protected group, we then used testing questions to define specific settings and resource profiles that made these groups at-risk or protected.

Upon completion of interviews and focus groups, we consolidated all information from each interviewer. Upon examination of these data, we found that three major themes predominated the discussion of risk and protective factors:

(1)    Work opportunities: Work was generally described as a determinant of well-being of individuals and families. In general, those who had work, and by extension what type of work they had, were seen as markers for relative well-being. Managing a small business was seen as preferable work relative to day labor and agricultural work for a number of reasons (detailed below). The factors determining who had work and what type of work they had were individuals’ histories of employment and migration , the use of humanitarian aid, availability of human capital (usually related to family structure), availability of natural resources, and individual differences in personality.

(2)    Adult males as providers: The traditional roles of men as providers and women as homemakers were central to perceptions of who was well-off and who was vulnerable. It was more common for families to be missing men than women, and so the focus of this theme was primarily on the lack of adult men and the advantages they bring to families (within very traditional cultures). Also important was fathers’ roles as advocates for their children (particularly in marriage negotiations and problems related to premarital sex), and as providers of dowries for their sons’ marriages.

(3)    Illness, injury, and immobility: The predominant physical determinant of vulnerability concerned disability for those who were ill or injured. Those suffering from disability were more likely to be elderly, but not exclusively.

Our presentation of these themes will not be seen as groundbreaking by anyone who has been to a refugee camp, and probably not to anyone who even thinks about refugee camps for too long. It is somewhat obvious that those who are injured are worse off than those who are not, and it probably will not surprise anyone that in traditional patriarchal societies, men are important to have around. So in some ways, our work really didn’t add a lot to the protection literature. However, in contrast to the dominant protection narrative among many in the international humanitarian aid community, the narrative expressed by these refugees portrayed vulnerability as a function of settings and resources rather than broad demographic categories such as orphans and women. That is not to say that refugees did not recognize that certain types of individuals—widows, for example— could be more vulnerable than others. Rather, when given an opportunity to explain the nature of vulnerability, many participants described how certain risk and protective factors — and not demographic status per se — make people more or less vulnerable.

The point of all this was to give information to humanitarian relief organizations working in protection. These agencies may be able to use this information to examine common ground between their own priorities and the priorities of refugees in Chad. It seems likely that any protection strategy would gain the most from beginning with cases that would be protection concerns for both NGOs and refugees, rather than start with cases that may conflict with one or the others’ priorities. This is not to say that NGO’s priorities that are not recognized by refugees (e.g., female circumcision) are not valid, only that perhaps these issues should not be the starting point for a protection program.

This project was subject to considerable limitations. These were primarily due to logistical errors, although political and contextual factors were also impactful. The political challenge concerned renewed rebel movement and fighting with the Chadian Army. Fighting around Goz Beida delayed our entry into the area by a week, and in the end we sent one investigator there while the rest of the team traveled to the south.

One significant contextual challenge involved demand characteristics of white interviewers asking mostly destitute African refugees about risk and protective factors. This is, of course, almost inevitable in any assessment like this, particularly when the distinction between the assessment team and service providers like UNHCR is not clear to participants. An important implication of this power disparity was that we struggled to facilitate a discussion about protective factors and strengths as many of the participants were focused on expressing their needs and deficits.

The scope of the assessment was limited by several logistical challenges. The variable quality of interpretation prevented us from understanding the subtleties of many participants’ statements, and even precluded us asking certain particular follow-up questions successfully. In addition to interpreter problems, we estimate that mistaken schedules and lack of communication surrounding weekend work requests cost the project at least a third of the planned interviewing days.

What do these limitations mean for our findings? At best we can say that we can make only broad strokes and generate general hypotheses for testing against experience and informing future assessments. Our findings are most certainly incomplete in scope in some way, although exactly how is unclear.

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June 2009
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