Permanent resettlement not a reality for 99 percent of refugees

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.”

David and Julie Yngsdal meet with a leader who is a refugee from Burundi. His wife and children are still living in Burundi. Julie says refugees in South Africa often come as a family, but they also come alone. The refugees who come alone are often men who escaped potential conscription to rebel groups and are responsible for sending money back to their families.

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.

“Some [refugees] talk about going back because life here is very, very hard for them, physically and emotionally. But no one ever does go back,” Yngsdal says. “The political situation is such that if they return as young, able men, they stand a chance of being kidnapped and conscripted into the army to fight—which they don’t want to do because those who are taken are never seen again.”  

As Davis talked to refugees and asked what their needs were, they identified learning English was their biggest need. Davis uses a curriculum developed by the North American Mission Board (NAMB) that teaches English by using the Gospel of Mark.

When Davis sees patterns in the needs of refugees, she talks with Send Relief about ways to provide aid. Send Relief projects have provided blankets for refugees and food for feeding programs.

Davis encourages Christian refugees to pursue ministry training. One Burundian man is attending seminary. Davis and her husband planted a new church this year, and they partner with a refugee pastor from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Yngsdal and her husband, David, also teach English to refugees and have many opportunities to share the gospel. The Yngsdals host Bible studies and discipleship groups and also provide food, clothes and money for schooling fees for those in need.

The majority of refugees and asylum seekers in South Africa will spend their days in poverty and peril. Most will not rise above their physical circumstances. However, a steadily increasing number are spending their days in communion with Jesus, the ultimate provider.

Refugees in Greece

At the end of 2019, Greece hosted 186,200 refugees and asylum seekers. The majority were Syrian, Persian, Afghani, Iraqi, Kurdish and Pakistani.

While a few Syrians are allowed to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia, most are denied entry and are forced to just wait in a dirt field at the edge of Greece.

IMB worker Derrick Pennon* said Greece is a transition point—most refugees who pass through the Mediterranean nation are headed to northern European nations. The refugee’s stay in Greece can be a lengthy one, and once they reach their country of resettlement, it can be a drawn-out process to gain permanent resettlement.

Receiving approval for permanent resettlement is becoming harder and harder due to the volume of refugees entering Greece. Refugees in Greece who are waiting struggle with depression and ongoing trauma incurred on their journey, Darlene King* says.

A Syrian refugee family gather at their designated United Nations tent. Paperwork to obtain refugee status can be lengthy, and the wait for resettlement can be even longer. National partners of IMB workers spend time in the camps, sharing the gospel with any and all who will listen. Many people have responded in faith.

“The stress and lack of resources take a toll on families; domestic abuse, drug and alcohol use, suicide attempts, panic attacks, self-mutilation—these are the stories I have heard this week alone,” King says.

This summer a group of like-minded Christians hosted a trauma healing group for 16 refugee women.

“The very nature of displacement leads to gospel-sharing conversations,” King says. “Without a community or religious leaders, these refugees are able to ask questions about God and Jesus that they have had for years, read the Word of God for the first time and hear truth without fear.”

Meeting physical needs is another way to help displaced refugees.

“When we show the love of Christ through meeting felt needs, whether this is through providing for physical needs or educational needs, people see a difference in Christians and the way they were treated in their passport country,” King says.

Though displaced physically, many refugees in Greece are finding permanent eternal settlement through a relationship with Jesus.

Get Involved:

Give to the AIDS Orphans Help Fund to support David and Julie Yngsdal’s ministry.

Give to Athens Church Planting and Refugee Aid to provide for the urgent needs of refugees arriving in Greece.

Give to Persian Refugee Discipleship & Education to support ministry among Persians in Greece.

Give to Send Relief’s Care for Refugees fund to provide aid for refugees globally.