Raising the Stakes, Lowering the Standards

Text & Photo Amy Watts and Manuel Padilla
Between 2003 and 2004, at the start of the crisis in Darfur, Eastern Chad was estimated to have received around 250,000 Sudanese refugees. Today, more than 10 years later, Eastern Chad is home to approximately 278,000 refugees, many of whom have been here since the beginning. To illustrate what this means for the lives of those who call a Chadian refugee camp their home, there are children born into these camps who have never seen their country of origin, who may not yet be accounted for among the population in the camp, and who may not even have an official birth certificate for a nation that would claim them as their own.

Those displaced from Darfur continue to cross into Chad even today, fleeing ongoing conflict which touches, in particular, the south eastern border. Adding to this we are seeing many refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR), refugees from the CAR formerly living in Sudan, and Chadian returnees from the CAR making their way across the border into Chad, fleeing the current conflict. But it doesn’t stop there. South Sudanese are making their way into Chad as well. Add to this thousands from Nigeria who are escaping the instability caused by the rise of Boko Haram. And we can’t help but ask ourselves, what about the increasing activity of ISIS in Libya? What sort of refugee situation might this create on Chad’s border?

This is the backdrop – this ongoing inundation of refugees from nearly every neighboring country in Chad – against which the international community is staging its turn from emergency response in Chad to long term, sustainable development. This transition is being fast-tracked in eastern Chad, where international aid budgets are on a continual downward trajectory after ten years of intervention in camps that host Darfur refugees. Many international agencies are therefore embracing this ‘transition to development’ as the next logical step in their exit strategy.


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The pressure is growing and the timeline has been accelerated.

Where emergency response has a well developed and time worn structure with clear objectives and strategies for implementation, development is much more complex and relies heavily on not only money but sustained cooperation and political will. So what does this transition from ‘urgent response’ to ‘development’ look like in Chad and what tensions are arising? We shift our focus to one particular refugee camp in eastern Chad that is home to roughly 19,000 refugees: Camp Djabal near the small village of Goz Beida in the province of Dar Sila.
In Camp Djabal, like the 11 other camps on the eastern border, there has been over ten years of crisis intervention by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. While they have made strides over the years, across humanitarian sectors, to build up the refugee community’s capacity and leadership, the pressure is growing and the timeline has been accelerated. Refugees are being expected to take on more and more responsibility for funding and operating basic services in the camp. This is creating a new crisis. Refugees are implored to ‘step up’ while the NGO community ‘steps back’ on funding. And after ten years of aid, the roles of these dance partners are being suddenly reversed. Refugees are being told to take the lead, but with a seemingly insufficient transition plan, lack of transparency, broken communication, and little in the way of real resources or agency, this is a false empowerment. With UNHCR stepping off the dance floor, a new partner is slowly cutting in–the Chadian state. But this partner has no taste for the tango. Given all of this, it’s no wonder refugees are left to stare at their own feet.

This is a crucial moment where refugees need intensive skill-building and accompaniment during this hard transition. For a decade, dozens of professional agencies have intervened to run a complex web of medical, nutrition, sanitation, water, education, security, and social services. Now that refugees are expected to take over, how are they supposed to uphold the same standards?

The answer is: they can’t. So the standards have changed.

From NGO to DIY

In the realm of education, the transition from aid to development is especially sensitive for the refugee community. The refugees from Darfur were allowed to keep their own Sudanese curriculum in the camps for the past decade. One surmises that this allowance was first based on assumptions that the crisis would be short-term, that it was in the best interest of the refugees, and that nearby Chadian schools could not possibly accommodate so many new attendees. Yet, it is a wonder that this allowance continued as an anomaly within the refugee community at large; most refugees around the world must integrate fairly quickly into the host country’s education system. In eastern Chad, this integration is only now becoming a reality.

The camp schools have now been mandated to adopt the Chadian curriculum and are supposed to be overseen by the state’s education officials, with NGOs building the bridge between the two. This transition is extremely difficult for the refugees. The vast majority of their own teachers are not properly trained to teach the breadth of the curriculum. Many parents and community members see the transition as highly symbolic as a partial loss of their identity that is transmitted through Sudanese education and are fearful of the inevitable loss of teaching jobs. The transition is also highly challenging for the Chadian officials who do not have the resources or personnel for training and managing their own schools in eastern Chad, let alone the tens of thousands of new refugee students now under their care.

As NGO education funds go down, the community of refugees is supposed to make up the difference. The ‘community school’ model in Chad is what the schools in the camps are supposed to become, which means they will be funded by parents contributing to support teacher salaries, basic operations, and school materials.

The transition is highly challenging.

Teachers are demotivated.

Eastern Chad has another recent example of NGO run schools turning into community schools—that of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) schools which educated displaced Chadians following the most recent civil war at IDP sites. In 2012, the Chadian state declared there were no more IDP’s, announcing that all of these people had either returned to their home villages or chosen to remain in their new locations, neither of which tells the essential truth. This change in status meant educational funding streams dried up in the settlements made up of now ‘formerly’ displaced Chadians. The results were devastating. With no real opportunities for self-established community financing and little support from the State, most of the IDP schools that transitioned to community schools are now barely functional. Teachers, who had become accustomed to years of a certain standard of income, are demotivated. Parents do not know how to support these community schools as most families can hardly, if at all, provide the most basic necessities for themselves.

One can’t help but look at these former IDP sites and see the future of schools in the refugee camp a few kilometers away. This transition from aid to development (read integration) within education requires deeper, sustained capacity building with a strong bridge to livelihoods projects. In eastern Chad, this is no small task.

The above scenarios beg many questions, most of which do not have easy answers. One poignant one is: should the refugee schools have transitioned earlier toward integration with the Chadian education system in order to integrate them into the host country structures and standards, even if they are lower than the international humanitarian aid standards by many counts?

It just so happens a grand experiment is currently taking place that might end up offering insights into that question.

The Problem with Kerfi

The international humanitarian aid community has increasingly become aware that refugee camps come with their own set of inherent predicaments, not the least of which is sustainability. In having to confront questions like that of transitions and standards, the appeal to formulate and implement specific plans for refugee integration into foreign host communities has gained popularity and momentum. To be clear, this term, integration, means different things in different places. When we speak of the integration of grantees of asylum into a ‘developed’ nation’s communities, we might automatically think of a host of services to help assimilate and absorb these new citizens into the structure and culture of their new home. They live next to us and work in our communities. Their children go to our schools. Eventually we are not even supposed to recognize them as once having been refugees, the memory of where they came from being swallowed by the fog of time, their zeal for their new homes, and the birth of new generations braking the final ties they once had with their past. This is the ideal, at least, that many industrialized countries gently, or not so gently, encourage.

Not so in countries that are already struggling to meet the basic needs of their own populations. This is certainly true of Chad. Integration looks much different here, as is evidenced by the situation in Kerfi, a rural village an hour southwest of Goz Beida. Kerfi has been designated the first locale for refugee integration in eastern Chad where nearly 5000 refugees had been planned to be relocated, in just the first year, from the failing refugee camp of Birnahal, a place almost straddling the border between Chad and Sudan. The creation of Birnahal was itself an accident. Refugees transitioning to places further into Chad found themselves trapped here after the summer monsoons filled the large, local wadi, cutting short their journeys within a week. Thus what was once a stop over became a camp overnight.

Thus what was once a stop over became a camp overnight.

Communication with Kerfi as a community was almost non-existent.

The problems that plague Birnahal are numerous. Remote access causing large expenditures for operations and cross border disputes requiring Chadian military intervention are only two examples. As a result, UNHCR and the Chadian government chose a relocation site, the community of Kerfi. In Kerfi, there would be no refugee camp but a refugee ‘site’ outside of town where refugees would be supplied with building materials for housing, plots of land for farming, access to water, and in general, live. The difference between a camp and a site (the difference between a camp and integration) is that refugees must access their other services – schools, hospitals, and others – through the host community. In exchange for the increased burden, Kerfi’s own service institutions are being subsidized by UNHCR for a limited time in order to accommodate the new arrivals.

In many ways the idea of integration holds much promise and potential. According to UNHCR, it has had its challenges but has also had varying degrees of success. Integration is potentially a creative and sustainable solution to on-going refugee situations. But in the case of Kerfi, it is the execution that leaves much to be desired. Here we find the same issues that plague transition in the macro sense all taking root in Kerfi: poor planning, lack of communication and the proliferation of confusion, insufficient funding, and the ignoring of critical relationship building and conflict management. To be sure, this is not all on UNHCR’s shoulders. The Chadian government shares, one could argue, the majority of the responsibility to make this project a success.

From the beginning partner agencies were inadequately prepared or positioned for the sudden announcement that they had a new project. Budgets, already thin, could not sustain an additional expense and promised funds were slow in arriving. Education agencies could not get a vision for their roles or responsibilities from UNHCR as convoys of school aged children began to arrive. Communication with Kerfi as a community was almost non-existent, the only meetings happening with local officials who themselves most likely did not do their due diligence in working with the community to receive the new refugees.

Much ceremony was made, by local government representatives, of how these refugees would be welcomed but it is almost certain that more effort was put into lining up construction contracts for their relatives, and fixing prices in the local market, than in holding community forums and trying to lay the groundwork for integration. This lack of a coherent and coordinated strategy on the part of both UNHCR and Chad, and the failure of both to take account of the interests (legitimate or not) of the refugee community, created almost immediate confusion and dissatisfaction on all sides. For instance, many refugees liked Birnahal as it was both close to their family farms in Sudan and provided them the opportunity to take advantage of refugee camp services. Refugees in Birnahal also complained that their integration was unfair as refugees before them had had ten years of camp level services which were more predictable and comfortable. Once refugees were placed at the site, they found they had several difficulties in front of them. For instance, they did not have adequate materials to build with and when someone got sick they had no means to get to the hospital in town.

Concerning the education system in Kerfi, there were a host of problems. The school system in Kerfi was already deficient in classroom space and materials for teachers and students. Only one school had access to water or was funded by the government. Some of the education modifications that were being made in Camp Djabal weren’t even being considered in Kerfi. Kerfi’s schools were mainly taught in French and refugees found it stressful to be expected to learn a new language in such a short period of time. Education officials in Kerfi were not motivated to make sure refugee children were enrolled in and attending classes. There were issues with discrimination and with refugee children getting to school and being harassed on the way. The new ‘mixed’ education council (of local and refugee representatives) wasn’t meeting to discuss and resolve their conflicts and there were no resources for education agencies to keep personnel in Kerfi to monitor and work through these situations on a day to day basis.

Expectations on all sides were unclear and it was an opportunity for everyone to dig in their heels and make demands. Refugees in Kerfi called their relatives in Birnahal, telling them not to come. At a certain point, there was a categorical refusal by refugees in Birnahal to board the convoys, bringing the project to a near halt. All parties had a major part to play in the downward spiral of integration in Kerfi, the refugees, the partner agencies, UNHCR and the government of Chad.

Would timing have changed this? Could an earlier plan and push for integration have meant better outcomes for refugees and host communities alike? One has to wonder. But we can say this for sure, with a change in standards came higher stakes for success needing more, not less, long term investment. If the case of Kerfi serves as any indication, we see that often times this kind of investment is simply absent.

All parties had a major part to play in the downward spiral of integration in Kerfi.

Amy & Manuel PortraitAmy & Manuel

Amy Watts and Manuel Padilla worked for an international NGO in eastern Chad and directed pre-school and primary education services in Camp Djabal in 2013 and 2014 in coordination with UNHCR. They were responsible for growing services there beyond education as well, including livelihoods projects and projects that focused on better conditions for women and girls. Their lives were immeasurably enriched by the communities they served, worked with, and learned from there.

Resilience and the protracted nature of refugee situations in Chad

While the previous vignettes bring up many ethical and logistical conundrums to those in the international community, they result in lived consequences, a constant state of limbo, and deep mistrust and heartache for those on the ground – refugees, locals, and well-intentioned aid or development workers alike. One thing is clear, the situations described above pose questions not just for Chad, but for refugee situations around the world, many of which are now protracted with less and less hope of refugees ever really returning home. Syria immediately comes to mind as we enter the 5th year of war there.

‘Resilience’ has become the new trend and the new normal. Development efforts are fostering communities that are expected simply to lurch from crisis to crisis, everyone having given up on dealing with root causes. How can communities carve out a space to truly plan for a sustainable future when crisis never seems to let up? Water shortages, political instability, economic insecurity, and violence are always posing threats in the near and long-term. And yet, is this the best humanitarian development can hope for in eastern Chad: refugee and host communities, side by side, facing a procession of major crises in front of them and neither knowing with any certainty if any other future awaits them?