The protection of the human rights of refugees is a part of the “spirit of Rio”. As well as this, with environmental and security issues becoming increasingly intertwined, efforts to make a more peaceful and stable world are at the crux of the ideology behind creating a sustainable planet.
The West African country of Guinea borders Sierra Leone, Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia, all of which are still recovering from recent conflicts. Wars in West Africa have led to over half a million people being displaced and have also created some 149,000 refugees. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been working on a project with other UN agencies and the Government of Guinea in order to facilitate the integration of refugees into the communities where they live in Guinea. These projects have had improved success thanks to the work of volunteers.
José Katunda, a UN Volunteer working on integration issues based at the UNHCR office in Nzerekore, says, "The desire for financial gain is not a motivating factor. Instead, we are motivated by improving the lives of the people we advise, 70 per cent of whom are women. We are proud of all that we have given to the region by helping refugees adjust to their new lives in Guinea, and believe we make an important contribution to Guinea itself in legal, economic and social terms as well as with building trust among the host community, colleagues and refugees."
He explains how in Guinea the aim is to focus on long term solutions, for example via the integration of approximately 9,500 refugees from Liberia and Sierra Leone as well as 5,000 refugees from Côte d’Ivoire into the local Guinean community of Nzerekore, where they have already lived for several years. The volunteers aimed to promote self-reliance in order to allow the refugees to achieve full legal, social and economic integration into the local communities, but also to build long term partnerships with development actors. To achieve this, refugees were encouraged to join local communities in income and subsistence generating activities that were being jointly implemented by UNHCR, the Government of Guinea and local NGOs.
José is one of six UN Volunteers working on this project. Together they provide expertise covering a broad range of areas, specifically health and nutrition; agriculture; protection; integration; database management; and public information. Because of the range of skills the volunteers cover, they are able to advise and support individuals and communities with, say, how to improve their overall level of well-being, but also manage the project itself by, for example, enabling UNHCR to keep track of which refugees need what kind of assistance.
Take for example the work of Keuwa Leon Doumun, the UN Volunteer working on protection issues, who provides key support with the local integration of urban Liberian refugees in Conakry. He regularly works on determining refugees’ status and ascertains what other protection issues they may face. As a result of his contribution, in Conakry, of the 142 families that have been successfully integrated into their communities, 42 have applied for small income generating loans from UNHCR and Yetemali, a micro-finance institution, which has led to refugees being able to open bank accounts and procure funds that enable them to further their entrepreneurial activities. The potential for self sufficiency that this brings accelerates their integration in their new community and the contribution they can make to it.
Another example from Conakry is the work of the volunteer database manager, Mohamed Doumbia, who has played an important role in the development and maintenance of the UNHCR refugee database. In addition, he has trained UNHCR staff members and government counterparts in registration and monitoring techniques, meaning that UNHCR can now produce statistics for all its operations in the country and thus know where they are excelling, but also where they need to focus their resources.
The efforts of the six UN Volunteers count not just for the refugees but also for the Guinean communities that have welcomed them. José tells us how the legal right to work for refugees is assured, but that a challenge in these regions is that, even before the refugees arrived, there were not enough jobs for the Guineans citizens living in these communities. This means that creating viable livelihoods remains an issue of concern for UNHCR and its partners. But it also means that the training, agricultural support and income generating activities it offers refugees, not only improves their lives, but also potentially betters the lives of the non-refugee members of the community.
Furthermore, the volunteers share their skills and knowledge by directly supporting the Guineans in the community as well. José explains, “To give you an example, under this project, some 1,640 refugee and host-community households have worked together to cultivate over 1,500 hectares of rice and maize. In another case, 24 groups of both Guineans and refugees were supported with other livelihood activities, including the creation of two fishponds”. The work of the project continues, and the impact of the six volunteers continues to be felt by those they support – refugee and non refugee alike.