The impact of refugee assistance on the elderly, a socio-economic and demographic study of elderly women and men at Tongogara, Mazowe River Bridge and Chambuta camps in Zimbabwe, 1983-1992

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Sidzumo-Mazibuko, Dodo Thandiwe Dorcas
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The general purpose of this study is to investigate the socio-economic and demographic characteristics of the elderly Mozambican population within refugee camps in Zimbabwe between 1983 and 1992. It also investigated the impact of governmental as well as non-governmental assistance to this particular group. The selected study areas focused on three refugee camps in Zimbabwe established between 1984 and 1990. These camps were located in different ecological areas of the country. The major instrument for data collection was the survey, with two questionnaires, one for the elderly women and the second for the elderly men. In addition, an unstructured interview schedule was administered to key informants working for various Government departments and NGOs. Participant observation was followed at the project sites in the refugee camps themselves. The findings indicate that Government policy of restricting employment opportunities to the studied population affected their economic well-being in the camps significantly. The adaptation of elderly refugees in camps is affected by structural, economic, cultural, social and psychosocial issues impacting their lives. An overwhelming majority of the elderly refugees were functionally illiterate. They came from a subsistence farming background. The general well-being of elderly refugees in camps is affected by their economic status, and whether their spouses and children are present with them in the camps. The population had a significantly higher representation of elderly women than men, and a sizeable number of these were widowed. Lack of money was a serious problem for the majority of the elderly women and men in the camps. More women participated in the skills-training projects. As a result, there were more women who stated that they had learned some useful skills by participating in the projects. However, a significant number of elderly refugees who were subsistence farmers before their displacement from Mozambique, noted that they had learned nothing new from participating in the projects. The skills-training projects provided certain skills to those who participated in them. It was not clear however, how these skills were going to be used in Mozambique after repatriation. Due to lack of traditional social support mechanisms in the camps, many elderly refugees often experience social isolation and emotional problems. More elderly women encountered various types of problems ranging from material want to emotional problems. The results of the logistic regression run on several key indicators of refugee well-being revealed that, gender, participation in skills-training projects, their relationship with camp staff and finally their relationship with other refugees were the most important predictor variables accounting for their well-being in the camps. In order to become meaningful and effective, protection and assistance programmes have to acknowledge and encourage the development of innovative self-help coping strategies and income generating projects that are directed by refugees themselves. These coping strategies take place within systems of independent communication among the refugees themselves, as well as the various trading relationships which evelop between elderly refugees and the local population. It is largely from such interactions that their independent livelihoods are sustained. For the future, it will be important that more multi-disciplinary studies be carried out in different regions of the globe in order to gain more insight into both the needs as well as the capacities of elderly refugees in camps, and for the assistance agencies to design more responsive programmes.