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A refugee is someone who has been forced to leave their country because of conflicts, wars or personal and group persecution, with a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of “race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinions”. Refugees exist because their countries of origin are unable or unwilling to provide the protection and security they need.

Being a refugee is different from being an immigrant. The difference lies in the fact that the refugee person does not choose to leave their country. She is forced to flee, for one or more of the reasons mentioned above. On the other hand, for an immigrant, leaving your country to go to another is a decision that requires consideration and preparation. Being able to prepare a series of elements such as: what to take, how to travel, where to stay when you arrive, how to handle documentation, where to go to get information or resolve a question, who to contact, where to go to work or where to look for a job, etc. In the case of refugees, all these elements are non-existent, and they are deprived of any freedom of choice, especially regarding leaving their country and where they are going.

But there is still a long way to go before someone can acquire refugee status... First, the person must be in another country in order to apply for international protection, this usually involves long and dangerous crossings that are made on foot or transport, by land or sea, given the impossibility or difficulty in obtaining travel visas while being persecuted by the authorities or the country being in the middle of a conflict.

We decided to flee Syria when I was 14 years old. We always had a lot of questions — "Where to go?", "What if the war is ending?" – but we knew that if we stayed, we would be killed or sick. We walked six hours at night to get to Turkey. Along the way, amidst the confusion of all those people running towards the border in silence, so as not to be caught by the police, we lost two of my sisters. They were three and nine years old. My mother cried the whole way, but we had to keep quiet and run. Shut up and run. I knew it wasn't a game: we could be killed if they caught us. We only found them hours later, already in Turkey, with other refugees who took care of them.

Syrian refugee woman living in Portugal

Given these difficulties and the lack of safe and legal routes that allow people to legally flee their country, around 69% find refuge in neighboring countries. This means that around 75% of refugees are hosted by low- or middle-income countries. Many of these countries do not have the capacity or adequate infrastructure to be able to welcome or integrate so many vulnerable people, which means that refugee camps, many of them improvised, proliferate in these areas. Most people who end up in a refugee camp stay for long periods, sometimes their entire lives, with multiple generations being born and only knowing these facilities, which often resemble authentic cities. Around 22% of refugees around the world live in camps. Although it is difficult to count the number of refugee camps that exist, it is estimated that there are more than 500 camps in the world, the majority of which are located on the African continent.

I am the oldest in my family, when I left I was only 16 years old and it has been almost two years since I arrived in Sudan. Life in the camp is very difficult, the environment is harsh and the food ration provided in the camp is barely enough for a week. I have no one outside or in the diaspora to support me, so I am now struggling to support myself. I tried working on the farm with the locals, who usually mistreat us and usually refuse to give us wages and kick us out with little or nothing. Now I'm trapped, I can't continue because I don't have the resources to pay the smugglers. I am psychologically and physically in a very bad situation. I'm desperate and I don't know what to do or where to go.

Eritrean refugee boy living in Shagarab camp in Sudan

Life may also not be easy for those who manage to establish themselves outside the camps. There are countries that may not recognize the rights of refugees, which combined with the increase of racist and xenophobic ideas, makes it impossible for adults to secure employment or for children to access educational institutions. Without support and often being discriminated against by the local population, many refugees find themselves in a very difficult situation in their countries of first asylum. This leads to many refugees deciding to apply for the global Resettlement program, to be resettled in another country that offers better reception conditions.

Resettlement is a permanent solution for refugees with specific needs who are unable to integrate in the country of asylum and are resettled to a third country. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) identifies vulnerable refugees in need of resettlement and assesses individual cases, supported by an interview. The most suitable countries are mentioned according to different criteria and the countries accept or not such identifications. Accepted refugees have medical checks and guidance before departure. Governments, IOM and NGOs collaborate directly in this process.


But most refugees stay for years in their country of first asylum waiting to be settled in a safe country. This waiting can lead to situations of great anxiety and depression, depending on the conditions in which they find themselves and the reality of the country. When resettled, refugees do not choose their destination country, often accepting being sent to another country out of desperation. Despite waiting many years for a solution, the process between notifying people and traveling to the country tends to be very quick. The information they receive about the country of resettlement is sometimes scarce or misleading, which can lead to misunderstandings and the creation of unrealistic expectations.

In Egypt, they attacked us several times and we couldn't do anything. Because we were of a different color we were considered inferior and that our lives were worth less than theirs. We waited 6 years for our lives to change until they told us we were going to Portugal. We were very happy!

The people from UNHCR who did the interviews told me that in European countries we had many rights, that we were going to change our lives. They said they would give everything easily, house, job, subsidies and documents in Portugal.

South Sudanese refugee man living in Portugal

In addition to arriving through programmed schemes such as Resettlement, Portugal also receives so-called spontaneous refugees, who manage to reach our country and here ask for international protection. From the moment they apply for international protection, these people are asylum seekers, having rights, such as being able to work in Portugal. The asylum procedure is not easy, involving some bureaucracy and tending to take some time.

The admission process depends on individual cases, asylum status and service capacity. In Portugal, the first instance decision will have to be made within 6 months, with the possibility of extending up to 9 months for more complex cases. However, there are many cases that can last for years.

Long waits to find out whether the asylum request has been accepted or rejected have negative consequences for the lives of applicants, especially in the psychological sphere, particularly in the area of anxiety and PTSD. This has negative impacts on their future life, especially in terms of integration and work.

After the admission process, which includes fact-finding and interviews, a decision on the process is issued. The European trend shows a greater number of negative responses than positive ones to requests for international protection, with 60% of decisions being negative in 2022. Portugal is no exception to this trend, having refused more than 80% of the requests in 2021.

Honestly, your life is zero. Zero. After a negative decision. You have no future. Every night is a nightmare. Every day is bad. Because you're still in that dark room. There is no shine, there is no light.

Asylum seeker man living in the UK

Even after the dangerous crossings, the difficult procedures or even the rejection by the local population, many refugees continue to live in troubled times. The “baggage” they bring and the experiences they live, combined with fragile mental health, associated with PTSD, leads to the ups and downs of the cultural shock. The difficulties of adaptation make this process an experience with sudden changes that can last more or less time.

Cultural differences and all their elements are also some of the most difficult issues to understand and overcome. It is necessary to understand them but also to have the physical and mental availability to initiate a process of change, to be able to integrate aspects of the culture and life on the new society. This is a long and very complex process and support from the host community is imperative.

Here at home, it was a snowball of conflicts and depressions. We felt out of place. But, after a year, I managed to go back to studying; After a year and a half, my husband found a job; and we were able to make plans again. It's a struggle every day, the language continues to be my main challenge, but I have (and we have) to keep moving.

I know we have to keep trying, trying, trying, doing, doing, doing. Always move forward. There are marks from my past that I can't help but carry with me, but I don't want to get stuck in them. Fear has to stay in the past. I've already started my life over again four, five times and I don't know what more turns it will take. It's okay, let the next one come.

Syrian refugee woman living in Portugal

The situation of many refugees is made easier or more difficult by the reality of the host countries in which they live. Support for integration and the way in which this support is provided are decisive for its success and for the security, well-being and dignity of the refugees' lives.

One of the essential elements for inclusion is the existence of a social network, allowing the support and help in all areas, including with simple things that make all the difference.

It was difficult to start all over again. In the early days, I often thought I couldn't take it anymore: listening all the time to a language you don't understand; try to discover ways out of roles and processes that you don’t know; survive within the strict rules of the centers that temporarily host you; not having a job or any future prospects.

But when I came to Braga things took on a different shape. One person offered to give Portuguese lessons to my daughters. Every week I came to pick them up. Another person, who is now a friend, gave me work and became a guarantor so I could get a house. We have no plans to ever leave Portugal. I can't imagine we could live anywhere else. This country gave me an opportunity when I was lost. It welcomed me.

Refugee woman from DRC living in Portugal

People do not choose to be refugees and flee their country, they do so to save their lives.

Their entire journey is full of challenges, making it difficult to start over in a different country, where they don't know the language and culture and where they have no one.


But this process can be facilitated through Community Sponsorship, as they can count on the help of local people.

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