Africa's Displacement Crisis Demands Action
African refugees do not need more pledges, but for governments to act on those already made.
BY ALLEHONE MULUGETA ABEBE
As Africa joins the world in marking the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, it is also celebrating the shrinking of its refugee population to 2 million people. This is a significant decline from 3.4 million refugees almost a decade ago. But even so, as the 60th anniversary slogan for UNHCR has put it, ‘one refugee without hope is one too many’. The decline came about through key developments across the region, including major repatriation programmes in West Africa, the Great Lakes region, Sudan and Angola. But to make further progress African states need to commit further to implementing existing conventions and legislation.
One of the major points of origin for refugees, Sudan, will soon be separated when the Republic of South Sudan gains independence on July 9, 2011. The outcome of the referendum earlier this year has given fresh hope for a peaceful settlement of the problem that underpinned one of Africa’s longest civil wars.
In Somalia, the African Union Mission (AMISOM) is working with the Transitional Federal Government and other regional partners to expand its territorial gain and weaken Islamist militias which continue to terrorize civilian population. Other countries such as Burundi, Liberia and Sierra Leone are emerging from long political and security crises.
Almost four decades back, Africa became a pioneer in the development of a regional instrument for refugee protection, when the Organization of African Unity adopted the 1969 OAU Convention. More recently the region has benefited from presence of regional mechanisms including the African Union and its sub-regional blocs in responding to the crisis of displacement. The result of this longterm trend was the adoption in 2009 of the Kampala Convention which is the first binding regional instrument on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The Kampala Convention construes sovereignty as responsibility, provides entitlements to IDPs, enlists the obligations of states, armed groups and regional and international organizations and provides a list of measures to be taken by countries at the regional and national levels.
Additional positive steps have also been taken in ensuring the protection of refugees and IDPS. Several African countries including Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya and Uganda are cooperating with the International Criminal Court to address impunity for human rights and international human rights breaches perpetrated against civilian populations including refugees and displaced persons. The recent establishment of inquiry commissions by the Human Rights Council in Cote d’Ivoire and Libya provide new tools to address protection issues and deal with impunity.
Yet despite these positive developments, the conditions of African refugees, asylum seekers and IDPs more generally remain dire. In Democratic Republic of Congo, displaced communities experience untold level of sexual and gender based violence. Several refugees and migrants fleeing the situation in North Africa have perished in Mediterranean Sea as they make their perilous flight to Europe. Political crisis, armed conflicts, human rights violations and disaster during 2011 have all created a surge in the number of people who are displaced within their own countries.
Compared to the two million refugees, there are over 11 million IDPs located in different African countries. Solutions for protracted refugee situations in Western Sahrawi and Sudan remain elusive while the condition of Somali refugees in Kenyan camps is evidently unsustainable. Cote d’Ivoire and Libya have emerged as the new hotspots for displacement crisis whereas Sudan and Somalia remain burdened with long term problems. The recent fighting in the border between the North and South Sudan has created humanitarian emergency and displacement crisis not only within Sudan, but also risks rolling back the gains achieved over the years in the return of South Sudan refugees from neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya.
In addition to the continuing instability and security challenges, Somalia is experiencing a devastating drought which has put the lives of millions civilians at risk and has forced many to flee looking for sanctuary both within Somalia and abroad. Migrants and asylum seekers flee Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia every day, often taking a dangerous and risky journey to countries such as Yemen or South Africa. The progress that has been made to naturalize displaced persons and protect refugees under international law is outweighed by the continuing instances of crises that African states and regional organisations are having to combat.
Moving beyond pledges
African states assume the primary responsibility to meet the protection needs of refugees and IDPs within their territory. Governments must ratify existing international and regional treaties, and this is particularly true with respect to the 1954 and 1961 international conventions focussing on statelessness which are so far ratified only by a handful of African countries. These commitments are important as African countries continue to address both old and new challenges, but actions need to go much further than symbolic pledges. African states need to be prepared to meet the challenges of displacement and refugee flight as a result of causes such as natural disaster and climate change, development projects and public works, human rights violations including discrimination based on sexual orientation and diminishing resources for protection and assistance to refugees and IDP populations. While they have taken encouraging steps such as developing regional norms and standards, more investments need to be made on the implementation of existing norms and strengthening national institutions.
It is often measures taken at the local and national levels which are the most successful and effective. Tanzania’s courageous and successful integration of refugees, Ethiopia’s 'out-of-camp policy' for Eritrean refugees, South Africa’s regularization effort of the status of Zimbabwe’s refugees and migrants are concrete measures which have positively affected the lives of displaced persons. But overall the best antidote against population flight is ensuring that staying is safe and better than fleeing across borders. Improved protection of the human rights of displaced communities would unleash the positive role of refugees and other displaced communities. African governments must seize this year’s anniversary not as another opportunity to make further pledges but as a chance to implement those which have already been made.
Allehone Mulugeta Abebe is an Ethiopian diplomat and an international lawyer with specialty in refugee and displacement laws. He is currently based in Geneva, Switzerland. This piece does not reflect the opinion of institutions he is affiliated with.