Urban Refugees Living at the edge of existence - by Dominique Catton

The world is facing the largest migration crisis since World War II. According to the UNHCR, there are currently 68.5 million forcibly displaced people globally.

Not only are the number of displaced people growing, this displacement is also increasingly prolonged, and the proportion of displaced people moving to urban settings is growing.

For this reason, there is a pressing need for humanitarian actors to adapt their crisis response to urban settings.

Cameroon currently has 1,214,714 “persons of concern,” including 275,711 Central African and 138,315 Nigerian refugees. Of these, 24,875 are urban refugees, living in the political capital Yaoundé and the economic capital Doula.

Many of these refugees chose not to stay in camps because they wanted to be independent and not rely on the assistance of foreign aid organizations. Others chose to live in the city just to be anonymous.

The reality for these urban refugees, though, is often very different from what they had imagined or hoped for. They share the challenges of those living in the poorest neighborhoods. Struggling to gain lawful employment and, as a result, often restricted to the informal economy, they are extremely poor and are often unable to meet even their basic needs.

Most of them face additional barriers because of their uncertain legal status and lack of proper documentation, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation, discrimination, and deportation.

60% of the world’s refugees and 80% of internally displaced people live in urban areas. Contrary to common perception, the vast majority of these people do not try to get to Europe or North America but settle in their neighboring countries.

For over six months, I followed two families of refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) living in Cameroon’s capital and documented their daily challenges and struggles.

Pamela and Apollinaire and Frida and Tangui arrived in Cameroon more than eleven years ago, after escaping the ravages of war in the CAR. They settled in the center of Yaoundé, but after all this time, they still live on the edge of emergence, struggling to survive. Their stories are unique, yet all too familiar: poverty, exploitation, and yearning for a home and loved ones they may never see again.

I listened to their dreams, fears, and hopes for a better future.

Pamela posing with her children in their one-room home in the city of Yaoundé, Cameroon.

Pamela left Paoua in the CAR in January 2006, on a Sunday morning when rebel groups starting shooting in church. With her husband Apollinaire and their son, she fled through Bang, a little village on the border with Cameroon and then walked 10 days by foot before arriving at Ngaoundéré. During the journey, she and Apollinaire did occasional work, such as washing clothes and working on crops, to earn the money they needed to catch the train from Ngaoundéré to Yaoundé. Pamela then found a job in the city as a maid, but after refusing the sexual advances of her employer, she was accused of stealing and was fired on the spot. Many women testified they had similar experiences.


Merveille is Apollinaire’s and Pamela’s daughter, she is eight years old and was born in Cameroon, as were her two sisters. She is standing in a corner of the now-empty room that had been her home for the last three years. She dreams of becoming a school teacher when she grows up but fears this will never happen because of her family’s financial troubles.

Nowhere to go

Liliane is 19 years old and shares an apartment with other refugees from CAR in the city of Yaoundé. One of Liliane’s flatmates, Francois, had got into an argument with their landlord, who had then accused him of stealing and had him arrested. The fight had started when the landlord screamed at them: “You are dirty and don’t take care of my house, I don’t want refugees here anymore.” According to Liliane, the landlord was always insulting them and treated like dogs, but this time, Francois answered back. “We paid our rent, but every day, we were threatened with being kicked out,” Liliane says.

Children just being children.

While adults gather up their belongings, children are playing and trying to forget their struggles. Ghislaine is nine years old and was born in Yaoundé. She goes to school only when her mother, Pamela, finds the money to pay the fee. Primary school is open to all children, but families need to pay upfront with their own money and are later reimbursed by the UNHCR. This can be a challenge for families like hers, who live in extreme poverty. Pamela is the only one working in the household now, since her husband became disabled three years ago. She works for less than 1$ a day.


Frida is 25 years old and mother of two.

“It was 2006 when rebels arrived in my home and started killing everyone, my father and my six brothers. My mom and I escaped through the bushes, but she was injured and asked me to continue without her. While I was fleeing, I was caught and raped by three men. The men started arguing over who would marry me and got into a fight, which fortunately gave me the chance to escape. It’s the worst thing I ever experienced , I still have nightmares and panic attacks. I never speak about it because it hurts every time I think about it. I took to the road again and met an old lady who lent me some money to catch the train to Yaoundé. Before experiencing this violence, I had never been with a man, so I can affirm that I didn’t know men before this tragic event. When I arrived in Yaoundé, I thought that all men are alike, but then I met Tangui, who became my friend, my brother, my husband, my father. He is everything to me.”

“One day I will build a home for my family”

Salomon is 12 years old and was one year old when he arrived in Cameroon. He is Pamela and Apollinaire’s oldest son. He dreams of becoming an architect and designing and building a house for his siblings and parents. “I don’t remember much about my country, I was less than one year old at the time. Cameroon became my country, my friends in school are Cameroonian, I speak their language, I eat their food and wear the same uniform when in school. We are alike, but sometimes I am reminded that I am also a refugee. My mom worked very hard to pay for the uniform I wear in school, if you don’t wear one you are different and discriminated by teachers and others pupils. I fear I won’t be able to continue my studies, often I am kicked out from school when my mom does not pay the fee, but I study hard and keep my hope alive. I tell myself I will be an architect. I dream peace may come in CAR and that one day I can go and see where I was born.”

Nursing. Being a refugee with a disability.

Apollinaire is disabled since an accident at work three years ago. He has a discal hernia and can no longer walk or even stand. He only received financial assistance for his disability for a few months. He used to be a night guard back in CAR and was providing well for his family. “I had a good job and was in good health, but this misfortune destroyed my family and my children’s future. I feel like I am half a person, not being able to contribute to my family’s well-being.” Twice a day, once in the morning and once at night, Pamela takes care of her husband. She lifts him up to wash him, change his clothes, and take him to the toilet. I ask Apollinaire if he wishes to go back to CAR, and he replies that he does not want to. “Everything has been destroyed, I wouldn’t find anything of what I have left.”

A price to walk

Apollinaire sits in the doctor’s office with his wife Pamela and his oldest son Solomon. He is waiting to have his medical records examined. The doctor then informs him that he could walk again after surgery and long rehabilitation. The cost of the operation is about 1000$.

Working for less than 1$ a day

Pamela doesn’t hide her despair after visiting the doctor. “Before my husband’s disability, everything was better, my husband used to work, and we were doing fine in Cameroon. Nowadays, we really suffer. I can’t sleep, I am constantly worried about the future, every day and every night I fear I won’t be able to get through another day and feed my four children. I work in a street restaurant for less than a 1$ a day, I know it’s less than I could earn, but I have no other choice. How can I possibly provide for my children’s education if I struggle every day to put something in my children’s mouths?”

Skill trainings and Inclusive programs

Many women refugees say that they would like to be trained in a professional skill. If they had a skill, they could work, be independent, and integrate into the working system. They are asking for a social integration program for refugees.

Recent studies not only show how empowering women through education increases development and economies around the world, but also, and most importantly, shows that educated women will have fewer but healthier children, who will enroll in school and who will in the future engage in finding durable solutions for a sustainable future.

Humanitarian actors need to adopt specific crises responses to urban settings by putting in place inclusive programs for refugees, as the average length of displacement has become 26 years.

Merveille, like her brothers and sisters, still holds a chance for her future.

If she could finish her studies and become who she dreams to be, she could reach out from poverty, live a healthy life, and work to make sure other children like her have the right to education. When I ask her what she hopes for the future, she replies: “I wish for my mom not to worry anymore and for my dad, to see him go out and have a walk”.

Created By
Dominique Catton


©Dominique Catton

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