Life in exile is never easy. Here journalists and officials discuss the challenges associated with media workers having to flee their country because of their work.
Ethiopian journalist Zerihun Tesfaye who has recently relocated to the US after living in exile in Nairobi
Imagine dedicating your life to a profession in the knowledge that it will almost certainly fail to provide you with financial stability. Then imagine that as a result of work you have done, you are harassed, attacked, threatened and even forced out of your country. For many journalists in East Africa, this is all too common a tale.
And this is only the beginning of the story.
Fleeing one’s country means leaving behind loved ones, colleagues and a home, and the struggle to reunite with any of these can often result in tragic consequences.
During a recent trip to Nairobi, representatives of the centre met with a number of journalists who had fled countries in the East Africa region in an attempt to remain safe.
Their lives are difficult, and they face common problems related to finding the necessary means to survive, as well as personal problems with security officials and governments.
Living in fear
In addition to the incredible powers of perseverance displayed by the exiled journalists, one of the most striking aspects of their daily lives is the constant fear looming over them. These are people who are completely terrified of their surroundings and immediately suspicious of everyone they meet.
Many are reluctant to speak to us at first, and some request that comments they make remain anonymous. During an evening interview in a hotel restaurant, one of the journalists receives a phone call from a neighbour checking on his safety as he had not yet returned home. The reality of living as an exiled journalist is that being away from home for an extended period of time could potentially spell danger or even death. These journalists quite literally fear for their lives.
And they have good reason to do so. Godwin Agaba is a journalist from Rwanda who was forced from his country in 2010 when he was publically accused by the President, Paul Kagame of inciting political instability and being responsible for grenade attacks, along with four other journalists.
“I crossed into Uganda that day, and the security officials started looking for us,” he tells DCMF, adding that many people believed him dead until he gave an interview to KPFA when he was in hiding.
On November 30, 2011, the danger which Agaba was facing was made abundantly and tragically clear.
“I was staying with a colleague in Kampala, another Rwandan journalist called Charles Ingabire – that night he was called by someone in a hotel and he was gunned down, he never returned back,” he says, adding “shot dead – he died on the spot.”
Godwin has been attacked himself, and was hit by a bus and left for dead, leaving him requiring essential medical attention (for which DCMF provided assistance). A hugely experienced and well known journalist, he was left devastated, alone and desperate in his adopted country, in the same situation as a large number of fellow journalists from across the region.
A long process
When we met Godwin, he was severely disheartened after his resettlement to the US had been delayed because of administrative issues. Weeks earlier, he had literally been stepping onto a plane to his new home and safety when he was informed he did not have the correct paperwork. Further issues led to longer delays and he was unsure as to when his new flight would be processed.
However, since our return to Qatar, Godwin has been successfully relocated to the US and is looking forward to developing his technical skills in the future.
Despite the delays, Godwin’s case was processed relatively quickly as it was a high profile story. However, the process is not always quite as clear-cut and many exiled journalists we spoke to felt that they were living in limbo, unsure as to the status of their applications for resettlement, and desperate to be relocated to countries where they could live and pursue their careers in safety.
United Nations High Commission for Refugees
The main port of call for exiled journalists is the office of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the institution which provides refugees with the necessary paperwork to make their stay in their new country official. The UNHCR also works on resettlement cases, interviewing refugees to decide whether they should be granted one of the relocation positions offered by various donor countries.
As such, this is one of the busiest buildings in Nairobi, constantly attended by refugees from across the region, many of whom are journalists seeking a future in which their safety and security will no longer be in doubt.
While in Nairobi, DCMF met with a UNHCR official, who explained that the institution is “working very closely” with the Kenyan government to enable them to handle all issues related to refugees in Kenya in the future.
He noted that the government has recently repeated calls for all refugees to be moved to camps as opposed to living in urban areas. “For a long time they have been very flexible, but because of security issues, refugees are now being told to go to camps,” he explained.
“Kenya has been extremely accommodating to refugees – I cannot think of another country which has been so good to refugees,” he said, noting that there are now nearly 700,000 refugees on record in the country, and countless others remaining unregistered.
Refugees continue to pour in from Somalia, and with conflict in countries such as South Sudan and elsewhere, there are large numbers of exiled journalists attempting to build a home in Kenya. He explained that journalists are not provided any special dispensation in their applications for resettlement: “We treat all asylum seekers exactly the same – we treat each and every case individually.”
The official noted that recent issues have resulted in a general shift in public opinion towards refugees, especially in relation to those from Somalia. “We have campaigns we run to try and make people see that refugees can make a positive difference,” he said, adding “but I would say that intolerance is growing because of security issues.”
The major problem is that the number of applications for resettlement far outweighs the allocated places offered by governments around the world, meaning that cases can often be protracted, and some exiled journalists find themselves waiting for three or four years to be granted a ticket to a new life.
After finding out that their applications are successful, refugees are then given an intense course preparing them for their new life abroad by the International Organisation for Migration. Some may have not even had the chance to travel by air before, and moving to an unknown location offers a completely new challenge, albeit a slightly less frightening one.
“I still believe in change”
While most exiled journalists are desperate to relocate to pastures new, others worry about moving further away from home. No matter where they are forced to live, they keep a constant eye on home in the hope that the political issues which drove them away may be resolved and that they will be able to return.
Zerihun Tesfaye fled to Nairobi in 2009 from his native Ethiopia after being targeted by the authorities. Despite the difficult situation facing journalists in his homeland, he remains hopeful for the future.
“I believe in change,” he said, adding “no one believed what would have happened with the death of President Menes last year. We hoped that there would be change after the days of Menes, actually the reverse happened and it’s getting worse.”
“But I still believe in change,” he added.
Zerihun’s story, or at least this chapter of it, has a happy ending. He has since relocated to the US and is hoping to be able to develop his skills as a journalist with an eye on returning to Ethiopia in the future after his time in exile.
Living as a refugee is a major challenge for anyone, but for media workers, used to playing an important role in society and communicating with people on a daily basis, the restrictions a life in exile imposes upon them are particularly devastating.
The uncertainty of waiting for news about potential resettlement, the constant fear of security forces and an inbuilt suspicion regarding everything and everyone around them makes life in exile excruciatingly stressful for media workers.
Yet they remain positive. They look forward to a time when they can return to their countries and when they can play a constructive role in the development of peaceful democracies. Despite the personal hardship many have endured, they remain committed to their profession, and long for the opportunity to develop their skills and career in the future.
Source: Doha Centre for Media Freedom