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Africa’s refugee-camp entrepreneurs

By Jackie Edwards

Karrus Hayes started small. With a $50 loan and some free space donated by a church, he created a school for refugee children in Budubaram camp in Ghana. But Hayes, himself a refugee from Liberia, didn’t stop there. He has built a much bigger non-profit organisation called Vision Awake Africa For Development that offers community college and micro-finance services to other refugee social entrepreneurs – and builds schools back in Liberia. It provides a safe space and education for refugee children, and that in turn helps create future social entrepreneurs.

When most Europeans hear the words ‘refugee camp’, they may think of Calais, or perhaps the ‘shipping container’ camps being built in Hungary. Yet these are tiny compared with the many huge camps in Africa and the Middle East that are home to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and paramilitary violence in their own lands, as well as famine and drought. And while these camps have many problems – and are often resented by locals – they also bustle with enterprise.

Dabaab in Kenya – the biggest refugee camp in the world – is home to more than 250,000 people. The refugees of Dadaab have overcome fearsome obstacles to create an economy that turns more than $25 million a year, with businesses as diverse as milling, livestock farming and web hosting. That is a remarkable achievement, considering the camp has minimal resources, while strict Kenyan labour laws prevent refugees from holding permanent jobs, starting bank accounts or leaving the camp without a special pass. It is testament to both human ingenuity and the enterprise potential of refugee camps.

Many people spend decades in refugees camps; children and grandchildren are born there. The camps are often accused of draining the host country’s resources. Yet many refugees in camps are incredibly enterprising – underscoring the finding of OPEN’s Refugees Work study that as well as being human beings deserving of dignity and respect, refugees are bursting with individual and collective potential.

More needs to be done to help realise that potential. Through a combination of creative micro-finance initiatives and a change of attitudes towards refugees and refugee camps, the potential of millions of people could be identified, to the benefit of themselves, their host countries, and the whole world.

Jackie Edwards is a freelance researcher, editor and writer.

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