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The world is on the move. There are more people displaced today than at any time since the Second World War. In 2016 alone, 20 people were newly displaced every minute of the year. Although global attention has often focused on the international movement of refugees arriving in Europe, in fact, the majority of people displaced today are displaced in their own countries. Similarly, when most people think of displacement, they might think of just a handful of high-profile countries. The reality is, tens of millions of people have fled their homes and everything they know because of crises the world has neglected and forgotten.
I recently travelled to Central African Republic (CAR) where Concern’s team and I recorded the stories of people affected by the displacement crisis there. CAR is one of the world’s most fragile countries. After five years of conflict, over 1.1 million people – more than one in every five Central Africans – are displaced. Ongoing fighting in many parts of the country is forcing people to flee, destroying lives, and preventing humanitarians from reaching the people most in need.
In Ouaka, a prefecture on the Ubangi River in southern CAR, fighting has forced many people from their homes in search of safety in nearby towns. There, we met Albert*, a 50-year-old former coffee farmer, who used to be a prominent figure in his village. His success, however, attracted attention: one night, militia forces attacked him in a violent robbery in which he lost his right arm.
Albert fled with his family in June 2017. He now rents a small house and struggles to make a living. He was used to being a provider for his family and has found it difficult to adjust to the impact of his disability and his heightened dependence on others. He told me:
I have feelings of pain, because I have lost all that I had. The standard of living is very hard here… In [my home village], I lived on the fruits of my cattle and my field. Here, I cannot make ends meet."
As a father and husband, he perceives this as a profound failure: “Before I had both hands, now I am disabled. I am totally dependent. What hope can I have for the future?”
In Ouaka, we also met Beatrice* and her son Robert*. When an armed group came to Beatrice’s village, like thousands of others, she fled across the Ubangi River into the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). There, she told me, refugees did not have enough food or water, and often came into conflict with the local host communities over using wells and foraging for food in the forests.
In times of hardship, close-knit communities often sacrifice what little they have to help each other. But in DRC, Beatrice told me,
Everyone was in misery. There was no way to help each other. Each family was focused on their own household.”
Her story is an example of the one of the many, hidden ways that war affects people’s lives. In the face of violence, uprooted from their homes, and separated from their families, people’s support networks, family ties and the small acts of kindness that help people survive crisis all start to break down.
It is all the more remarkable, therefore, that even in the midst of crisis, people still find ways to support one another. When we think of displacement, we tend to think of refugee camps, of tents and of temporary shelters. In reality, most displaced people don’t flee to camps, but to family and others they can rely on. In CAR, an estimated 400,000 people rely on host families to survive. Not only do they have to build a new life in often unfamiliar surroundings, but this often places more pressure on their hosts, who may already be struggling to make ends meet.
Towards the end of my trip, the team and I met Aisha*, a 50-year-old woman who fled violence in her village to stay with her brother, Hassan*, and his family. Hassan told me how difficult he finds it to feed his large family, especially now that violence in the surrounding areas means he cannot go to his field and cultivate. When I asked him why, in the midst of such difficulty, he offered to take his sister in, he told me plainly: “She is family. And she has nowhere else to go.”
The stories I heard in Ouaka are just three stories out of over one million people who have been uprooted and their lives changed forever by war. Even though they show the devastation that violence can bring, they also show that people affected by war are not just victims, but active agents in rebuilding their lives. Many displaced people don’t want to rely on humanitarian aid to survive: they want to work, to be independent and self-sufficient, and do everything in their power to take care of not only their families, but their wider communities, in times of crisis.
Many displaced people don’t have that opportunity. In the face of ongoing war, even modest gains in building up livelihoods can be undone in an instant. As one group of men who had recently returned from DRC told me,
We do not have peace, how can we have hope? Without peace, there is no hope."
Caitriona Dowd is Concern’s Humanitarian Policy Advisor and is conducting research on the humanitarian consequences of conflict. Caitriona is working on three papers on the topics of conflict and displacement, conflict and hunger, and conflict and peace-building, the first of which is available to read below.
*names have been changed for security purposes