Africa’s youth wasted in refugee camps

Congolese migrant Ilunga Malea Shabani has been living in Tanzania’s Nyarugusu camp for nearly two decades.

Malea Shabani-
"We are just staying, waiting here, for what I don't know," Shabani says [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]

Kasulu, Tanzania – Ilunga Malea Shabani, 26, says he does not recall his journey to Tanzania well.

It was some time in 1997 when major fighting broke out in South Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

His uncle and aunt grabbed him and fled across Lake Tanganyika into Tanzania.

That was 18 years ago.

He hasn’t heard about the fate of his parents since. The only world he knows is the Nyarugusu refugee camp where he has lived since he was an eight-year-old boy.

“I have never been out of the camp. I have seen things on my phone, like pictures from Cape Town,” he says with a grin, on hearing that I am South African.

“I go on the internet with my phone, but I don’t have WhatsApp,” he adds, waving his weathered feature phone at me.

Shabani is one of 65,000 Congolese migrants living at Nyarugusu camp, outside Kasulu, in western Tanzania.

The camp, built only for 50,000 migrants, is situated inside a forest.

Incongruous setting

This is not the semi-arid Dadaab camp where hundreds of thousands of Somalis live, or the dusty and very remote Mole camp outside Zongo where CAR migrants from Bangui live.

Here the setting is most incongruous with the reality of its inhabitants.

And these days, the camp is even more crowded.

Every day, for the past 10 days or so, around 2,000 migrants have made their way to camp.

With 35,000 Burundians entering the camp, Nyarugusu is bursting at 200 percent of its original capacity.

I ask Shabani what he thinks about the arrival of displaced Burudians to the camp.

The youth of Nyarugsu camp [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]
The youth of Nyarugsu camp [Azad Essa/Al Jazeera]

“Oh, these from Burundi? We don’t have any problem. We are all African. These are our neighbours.

“We welcome them. We say welcome to the Nyarugusu refugee camp.”

Shabani has mischief in his eyes and a wicked grin on his face. But his life story is replete with an agonising desperation.

Shabani says that he sometimes earns $0.90 day by cutting hair or doing a few odd jobs.

But the hair salon hasn’t been open every day because business is scarce. And though leaving the camp is possible and could possibly be achieved through applying for a special permit from authorities, he says: “Where would I go and I what would I do with no money to do anything?”

“We are just staying, waiting here, for what I don’t know,” he says.

 “I am 26 years old. I need a job. I want to do something for my life.”

We’ve certainly seen this before.

Some of the young men of Somalia living in the Dadaab refugee camp for 21 years, have been working for UNHCR as translators for the new arrivals of 2011.

They too came as infants and never left Dadaab.

Power and greed

Then there are the young migrants from CAR, better accustomed to bars, parties and pretending to study in Bangui, who were then forced into the Zongo refugee camp in 2013 when Seleka rebels took the city.

In an instant, their world was shattered by power and greed.

The disproportionate impact on youth in times of conflict is a story about powerlessness.

In 2014, the UN said half of migrants were under the age of 18. For instance, more than half of Syria’s migrants are children.

In the past few weeks alone, more than 1,300 traumatised children from Burundi travelled to Tanzania unaccompanied.

Shabani was sitting on a plastic chair under a tree when I saw him waving me down, bidding me to come talk to him.

The shade was inviting so I indulged him. It was only when I got to him did I realise that he was a Congolese refugee, that in fact he was idle, sitting on a chair, passing his time, watching the new arrivals settling into the camp.

Shabani is perhaps one bright hope for a continent watching a new generation of potential entering a vacuous future.

Source: Al Jazeera