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Stories of struggle and hope: What it means to be an urban refugee

January 10th, 2013

Urban refugees have a tough and poignant life – often fleeing death and unimaginable hardship, many of them end up in large cities – impoverished, vulnerable and unseen. To tell their story and raise awareness of their situation – the situation of millions of people – we are running a campaign together with our partner, the International Rescue Committee. Part of it is the exhibition “Hidden lives” of award-winning photographer Andrew McConnell (check out the article about it at the BBC website). If you missed the exhibition in Brussels, it will be at St Pancras International Station until the end of January – go and see it if you’re in London! I’ve invited its author as guest blogger – Andrew’s words will touch you as much as his photos.

I began shooting the project Hidden Lives in May 2012, in the town of Mafraq, northern Jordan. At that time approximately 100 Syrians per day were crossing the border into Jordan, all desperate for a safe haven from the turmoil inside Syria. They had witnessed extreme violence and spent days or weeks traveling, either by foot or by road, in order to escape. Some were nervous about being photographed, fearful that the regime would target them. Others were enthusiastic; keen to speak out about the violence they had experienced.

From Jordan I travelled to Bangkok and was surprised by the wide range of nationalities seeking refuge in Thailand. I photographed refugees from places such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, China, and even the Democratic Republic of Congo. Refugees make their way to Thailand because of relaxed entry requirements. However, once visas expire many refugees face difficulties from the authorities. From Bangkok I headed south to Kuala Lumpur and there met some of the tens of thousands of refugees from Burma currently residing in the city. Many of the different ethnic groups were represented and they were some of the most well organised refugees I was to meet; all had associations or centres offering support, both to those newly arrived and those already established in the city.

In Africa my first stop was Bujumbura, capital of Burundi. The city lies a mere 10km from the Congolese border and as such sees frequent influxes of refugees from DRC. Many of those I met had recently fled violence perpetrated by the rebel Mai Mai group and were sheltering in a transit centre in the city. Conditions were harsh; scores of people slept in cramped rooms and all complained of a lack of food. Most were awaiting interviews from the authorities and had little knowledge of their immediate future. From Bujumbura it was a short flight to Nairobi. The suburb of Eastleigh is home to large numbers of refugees and here I photographed people who had fled the conflict in Somalia and oppression in Ethiopia. The police in Nairobi were the most feared out of all the countries I visited: extortion, harassment and arrest were commonplace.

I travelled next to Haiti. The 2010 earthquake caused widespread destruction in the country’s capital, Port-Au-Prince, and almost an estimated 350,000 are still displaced. Some 496 settlements are spread throughout the city and many of the people I met complained of being forgotten by their government, and the outside world. Poverty is endemic and conditions under the tarpaulin tents are harsh: boiling hot in the sun and leaking water during the rains.

In New York I was to meet some of the refugees fortunate enough to be resettled in a first world country. Many refugees place hope in the prospect of resettlement, but to be accepted for the programme is akin to winning the lottery, such is the demand for places. In New York I met refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and Bhutan. All were positive about the future and working hard to build a new life for themselves.

My last stop was London. Again I met refugees from Afghanistan, but rather than being some of those lucky enough to be resettled they were in fact teenagers who had made harrowing journeys overland in the hope of finding a better life in the UK. Many refugees in the UK enter the legal system and spend years in limbo, not knowing if they will be allowed to stay in the country. I also met European refugees, from Bosnia and Kosovo, who had fled their homes in the 1990’s as war was breaking out in the Ballkans.

The breadth of experience each refugee related to me was astonishing. All had horrifying stories of persecution, oppression, or violence. They had fled to cities for different reasons, most sought safety, and the opportunity to find work and therefore a better life. They could not be categorised, they came from every continent and every background, young and old, rich and poor. In the future we will only see increasing numbers of refugees in cities, and they will have experienced injustices and made journeys that we can barely imagine.

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