Democracy has risks as well as benefits, refugees find

By Karen A. Grava, CLAS Today

In 1990, the government of Ghana set up a refugee camp for people fleeing from political strife in Liberia.

Twenty years later, the camp, the Buduburam Refugee Camp in Accra, has grown to accommodate 40,000 people and Ghana’s sense of hospitality has been stretched thin.

Exactly how things are unfolding politically in the camp is the topic of research by Elizabeth Holzer, a recently hired assistant professor of sociology who plans to spend the summer visiting both Liberia and the camp in Ghana, where she previously lived for 13 months.

She hopes to explore how humanitarian interventions influence people to consider both the potential benefits from participation in seeking democratization and the risks of doing so.

Holzer, who has a joint appointment with the Human Rights Institute, says that a lack of democracy and opportunities for input into their own fate led the refugees to protest while Holzer was there in 2007 and 2008.

“This is a small city. It has concrete structures and a fluid population,” she says. “But refugees never run the camps and are treated like political children. There is a lot of oppression there.”

Although Holzer, who earned her doctorate from the University of Wisconsin, has never been a refugee, her grandfather left his family in Vienna for Palestine when he was a child during World War II.

“Life-changing emigration happens every day,” she says. “But many people hope to go back home and be repatriated.”

Most of the Liberians face a hard choice: At home, civil war has destroyed not just their homes but also the infrastructure, including the water system and electricity. The camp is home to refugees of both the First Liberian Civil War, which lasted from 1989 to 1996, and the Second Liberian Civil War, which lasted from 1999 to 2003. It also contains refugees from Sierra Leone who escaped from a 1991-2001 civil war there.

So they often stay for years in the camp in Ghana where class matters a great deal and economic conditions vary widely. They are not permitted to choose their leaders and they have no effective means of making a personal grievance if things are not going smoothly.

“There is a very authoritarian structure in the camps and there is no room for civic debate,” she says. So when the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced plans in 2007 to withdraw support from the camp, about 3,000 residents returned to Liberia. The rest could do little but mount a protest.

“They would sit in the field and wait,” Holzer says. The protesters closed food distribution, schools and the nightclub at the camp. Then authorities sent in riot police to arrest 600 to 700 people, mostly women and children.

Observing the conflict, she says, she never felt in danger even though she knew that the authorities wanted her to leave. Since both the Ghanaians and the Liberian people are very hospitable, they took care of her and she was safe.

Holzer, whose work has been supported by the National Science Foundation, a Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Fellowship, and the UConn Research Foundation, will spend the summer in both Liberia and Ghana. She is hoping to reconcile the feelings of compassion the humanitarians have for the refugees with the authoritarian principles they use to run the camp.

The issue is of special relevance to Liberians, whose country has had a very long relationship with the U.S. The country was settled by freed American slaves and served as the center for America’s cold war campaign in Africa. Before the civil war, the country was very stable, democratic and home of one of the oldest universities in Africa.

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