Africa Fact Sheet

Report
from UN High Commissioner for Refugees
Published on 21 Dec 1998
December 1998
INTRODUCTION

As of January 1998, there were 7.2 million people of concern to UNHCR in Africa, out of an estimated 22.3 million worldwide. The Africa figure includes 3.5 million refugees, 1.5 million internally displaced and 2.2 million former refugees who have recently returned home. In January 1997, the global number of people of concern to UNHCR was 22.7 million, of whom 8 million were in Africa.

Among the 10 major refugee countries of origin in the world, six are African. They are Angola, Burundi, Eritrea, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan.

Top 6 African refugee countries of origin: Sierra Leone 440,000; Somalia 419,000; Sudan 374,000; Eritrea 320,000; Burundi 300,000; Angola 255,000.

Top 4 refugee-hosting countries in Africa: Guinea 470,000; Sudan 390,000; Tanzania 330,000; Ethiopia 317,000.

For comparison, the top two refugee-hosting countries worldwide are: Iran 1,980,000 and Pakistan 1,200,000.

West Africa

At the beginning of 1998, states in the region hosted around 480,000 Liberian and 270,000 Sierra Leonean refugees. The year's developments in Sierra Leone and Liberia brought contrasting fortunes for these populations in exile. The twelve-month period witnessed the return home of an estimated 240,000 Liberians and the flight of another 250,000 Sierra Leoneans, principally to Guinea. As the end of the year approached, UNHCR was continuing the repatriation of Liberians while the number of Sierra Leonean refugees has swelled to 440,000 - 350,000 in Guinea and 90,000 in Liberia.

By the middle of the year, Liberian refugees were returning with UNHCR help in significant numbers from Côte d'Ivoire and Guinea. Regular convoys rolled from Danané, N'zérékoré, and Guéckédou despite lingering funding difficulties which affected logistics and reintegration projects in Liberia itself. To date, 39,202 individuals have climbed aboard UNHCR buses, trucks or ships to repatriate from five countries of asylum in West Africa. Another 50,000 have left under their own steam with material assistance from UNHCR.

A survey in October of Liberia's main return counties revealed that as many as 150,000 other former refugees had returned spontaneously. The estimate confirmed what UNHCR and other aid agency staff had long known, that refugees "return" over a period of time, sometimes making several trips back and forth across the border to begin work on their fields and houses, while still dependent on the medical and educational facilities in refugee settlements. It also highlighted the pressing need for development assistance to Liberia, still recovering from the effects of its seven-year civil war.

While the democratically-elected leadership of Sierra Leone was returned to power in March, this did not stop the massive outflow of refugees, which reached a peak of 80,000 in April alone. Reduced to desperate guerrilla tactics after less than a year in power, the rebels turned on the civilian population and perpetrated horrific crimes in an attempt to control territory. UNHCR registered almost 500 victims of violence and mutilation in Guinea, and an untold number of women and girls have been raped. Rebels have also crossed the border on occasion to attack refugee camps and Guinean villages.

The events in Guinea-Bissau, despite displacing a large portion of the population, have not created significant numbers of refugees. Some 5,300 crossed borders into Guinea (Conakry), Senegal and Cape Verde during successive rounds of violence in the small nation. UNHCR set up refugee camps near Dakar and in the north of Guinea, and has worked with the ICRC to help internally displaced populations move back home.

In Mauritania, a long-running program to reintegrate former refugees from that country who had been in exile in Senegal since 1989 will end at the close of the year. Some 33,000 Mauritanians have benefited since 1996, when UNHCR's plan to assist returnee families through a large number of rehabilitation and 'quick-impact' projects won the approval of the two governments.

East Africa and the Horn

Against a backdrop of confrontations between Ethiopia and Eritrea and fears of new population movements in the Horn of Africa region, 1998 has nonetheless seen several groups of refugees in the area elect to repatriate, with the largest among these the nearly 50,000 who left camps in Ethiopia for their homes in Northwest Somalia.

The total figure of Somalis repatriated by UNHCR since the operation began in 1997 has risen to some 60,000.

While the target figure for 1998 was 70,000, the rate and the Northwest's ability to absorb the returnees depends on timely international aid to the Hargeisa area as well as continued political and economic stability. Although repatriating Somalis receive a grant of 200 birr (27 $US) per person, nine months' supply of food, blankets, jerrycans and plastic sheeting, the problems they confront are often not so easily resolved: the people of Aware and Aisha camps, for example, 95,000 in all, await the de-mining of their home villages before they can think about returning.

In June, UNHCR completed the repatriation of Ethiopian refugees from Sudan, ending an exile which in the case of many lasted more than 20 years. The five-year operation brought 72,327 people back, principally to northern Ethiopia.

In November, UNHCR began the repatriation of more than 5,000 Ethiopian refugees in Kenya, a country that has seen a massive reduction in its refugee population from 420,000 in 1991 to 186,000 today. This follows large scale returns to Somalia and Ethiopia and the resettlement of more than 33,000 refugees to third countries.

Early in the year UNHCR completed detailed lists of Sudan's more than 150,000 Eritrean refugees, an overwhelming majority of whom want to return home. UNHCR has reinforced its staff in Asmara and awaits the go-ahead for a repatriation from the Eritrean Government. At present, the way-stations erected for the operation are being used for populations displaced by the border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia.

Thousands of Somali and Ethiopian boat people, many of them asylum seekers, have crossed the Gulf of Aden to Yemen during 1998, often with tragic results. At least 247 are known to have died at sea while almost 10,000 individuals have arrived in Yemen since January. The boat people pay smugglers, who try to evade Yemeni coast guard patrols, for passage. There are a total of 65,000 Somali refugees living in Yemen; UNHCR assists 10,000 of them in Al Gahin camp in Aden.

The Great Lakes Region

The Great Lakes Region witnessed the second rebellion in as many years in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire. The outbreak of hostilities on 2 August again forced humanitarian workers to evacuate offices in North and South Kivu and caused thousands of civilians to flee the fighting, crossing Lake Tanganyika by boat to Tanzania.

Rehabilitation programs for refugee-affected areas, the principal activity of UNHCR offices in Bukavu and Uvira, were halted when international personnel withdrew during the second week of August. The repatriation of Congolese refugees from Kigoma, Tanzania, was suspended immediately too; more than 46,000 people - more than half the total number of refugees from the 1996-1997 war in Zaire/DRC - had boarded boats chartered by UNHCR taking them back to Uvira and Baraka over the preceding year.

Just as quickly, Tanzanian port villages registered vessels disembarking more refugees, and from August to December, almost 16,000 people arrived on the eastern shores of the lake. During the same period, approximately 6,500 Congolese fled South Kivu for Burundi, and 500 crossed into Rwanda.

Several thousand Rwandans left refugee camps in Congo-Brazzaville in early November, reportedly crossing into the DRC from sites along the Congo River at Liranga, Njoundou, and Loukolela. At the same time, Rwandans in the Central African Republic threatened locals and UNHCR staff at Bouca camp with violence if they weren't allowed to return to the DRC. 914 Rwandans had been housed at Bouca; all but 58 left.

UNHCR expressed concern that the Rwandans would become involved in the fighting in the DRC, which would disqualify them from international protection and be in violation of the Organization of African Unity's Refugee Convention.

Burundi refugees in Tanzania represent the largest group of refugees in the Great Lakes region. Some 270,000 reside in eight camps in the area between Ngara and Kigoma. Although UNHCR has registered spontaneous returns to the northeast provinces in Burundi (2,898 people during September and October from Ngara, for example), the number of new arrivals has remained consistently higher - 4,097 people crossed into Kigoma region during those two months.

Southern Africa

The second half of 1998 plunged Angola, southern Africa's main producer of refugees, back into civil war, undoing four years' effort to implement a peace accord between Luanda and UNITA rebels. UNHCR and non-governmental organizations had to quit offices in the east of the country in June as a result of the fighting, along with around 30,000 Angolans who crossed into Shaba province in the DRC.

Although 145,000 Angolans have repatriated since UNHCR began a repatriation operation in 1995, the renewed instability has dimmed prospects for the 255,000 refugees who fled to Zambia, Congo-Brazzaville, the DRC and Namibia during 20 years of civil war. When conditions once again permit returns to Angola, aid agencies will have to help in the reintegration of the internally displaced as well, whose numbers swelled by an estimated 330,000 between April and December.

Refugees have entered Zambia from Angola and the DRC. Several hundred arrivals from Angola were registered in November in the northwest, confirming a rise which began in July, while several hundred Congolese refugees crossed into Zambia's northern provinces. UNHCR staff in Lusaka are reviewing contingency plans as the country shares a long border with both troubled states.

The short but intense disturbances in Lesotho during September drove around 1,000 people to seek temporary safety in Ladybrand, South Africa. UNHCR helped a South African effort to transfer people home when order in the small nation was eventually restored.

Several hundred Namibian separatists crossed into Botswana beginning on 27 October, eventually renouncing their armed struggle for the independence of the Caprivi strip. The group, which now totals almost 1,000 people including women and children, claim they would be persecuted if they returned to Namibia. UNHCR proposed that they be screened to determine the validity of their claims to refugee status. Botswana's government has given its assurance that the group will not be forcibly sent back pending a decision on their status.

30th Anniversary of the OAU Convention

1999 marks 30 years since the OAU adopted its Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa.

Commonly referred to as 'the OAU Refugee Convention', it both borrowed from and expanded upon earlier international statutes, broadening the scope of who is a refugee and how the displaced should be treated. The OAU's generous definition of a refugee goes far beyond that contained in the landmark 1951 Geneva Convention and its follow-up 1967 Protocol.

The broader definition of a refugee includes anyone "who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality."

It has been of particular importance in situations where large numbers of people have been forced to flee and when it is impractical to examine individual claims for refugee status. Under the OAU Convention, refugee status can be granted to whole groups, not just to individuals. It also was the first legal instrument to specifically include the now universally accepted principles of voluntary repatriation.

Kampala Meeting on Refugee Issues in the Great Lakes

A two-day meeting in Kampala in May 1998 on Refugee Issues in the Great Lakes region of Africa ended with a reaffirmation of principles of refugee protection, in particular those reflected in the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention.

The final statement of the Chairpersons of the Conference, the High Commissioner and the Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity, also addressed issues concerning Burundi refugees in Tanzania, Rwandans abroad, rehabilitation of refugee-affected areas, reintegration and security.

On security, there was broad agreement on the need, in extreme cases, for international intervention in refugee situations to ensure that the civilian character of camps is maintained and respected. A strong view was expressed that interventions by countries of the region are better suited to such situations than traditional multinational peacekeeping forces.

Eight countries participated in the meeting -- Burundi, Ethiopia, Kenya, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Delegates stressed that refugees should not receive "exclusive assistance" and that the needs and sensitivities of host communities should also be addressed.

Agreement with ECOWAS

The Executive Secretary of ECOWAS and the ECOMOG force commander held talks with UNHCR in November 1998 on arrangements for a Ministerial Meeting on refugees in West Africa and on a draft accord for cooperation between the two organizations.

Ambassador Kouyaté and Major-General Shelpidi held wide-ranging discussions with High Commissioner Ogata and senior UNHCR staff on security in refugee zones, collaboration between humanitarian agencies and military, and political initiatives in West Africa's conflict areas.The ECOWAS leadership also reiterated their organization's commitment to resolving conflicts and supporting relief work. . Set for the first week in March, 1999, a joint meeting at the Ministerial level will be held in Guinea (Conakry), on refugees, displaced persons, and returnees. Participants will address issues such as the nearly 700,000 Liberian and Sierra Leonean refugees, and the peace process in Guinea-Bissau.

Ministers of Foreign Affairs from the West African organization are to review a proposed Memorandum of Understanding between UNHCR and ECOWAS.

The agreement would formalize and expand on existing cooperation in the field, and stress the need to exchange information and ensure the civilian nature of refugee camps. Both parties welcomed ECOWAS's plan for conflict prevention and management in the region.

New Resettlement Options

More doors have opened during 1998 to African refugees who, for protection reasons, need to move from the country where they first sought refuge. Benin and Burkina Faso became the first African countries to take in refugees for resettlement, while several other countries outside of Africa significantly increased the number of people admitted under existing arrangements.

The initiatives by Benin and Burkina Faso mean that hundreds of resettlement places are now available on the African continent. Cotounou will accept 240 candidates every two years, while Ouagadougou will provide places for 100 individuals annually. Already, 32 refugees have moved to Burkina Faso and are receiving help to settle locally.

Several traditional resettlement countries have increased the number of refugees they accept on an annual basis. Finland and Norway are among these, with the latter raising its worldwide resettlement quota from 1,000 to 1,500. Around 250 of these candidates are expected to come from Africa.

Other countries, such as the United States, Canada and Australia, have set aside a larger number of places specifically for African refugees. The US figure, for example, was raised from 7,000 to 12,000 during the 1997-1998 fiscal year. About one-third of the refugees resettled under UNHCR
auspices worldwide are African.

Candidates for resettlement are individuals who, to escape persecution, or in order to be reunited with family or get necessary medical help, for example, have to move from their first country of asylum. The increased number of resettlement places give UNHCR added flexibility as it pursues long-term solutions for African refugees.

PUBLISHED BY Public Information Section For more information, please contact: Tel.: [41 22] 739 85 02 Fax: [41 22] 739 73 15 www.unhcr.ch

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