Africa Refugee Status: A Review

808 views Published on 27th June 2017

The total number of people forcibly displaced worldwide by conflict and violence reached 65.6 million at the end of 2016, of whom just over one third are refugees, the vast majority generously hosted in countries neighbouring their own. And Ethiopia, of course, has been for decades a welcoming refugee-hosting country.

Africa remains disproportionately affected. Sub-Saharan Africa alone hosts three in ten of those forcibly displaced by conflict and violence worldwide, including 5.6 million refugees and asylum-seekers under UNHCR’s mandate.  These figures represent countless stories of lives blighted by violence, grief and loss; of people compelled to abandon their homes, their communities and countries in search of refuge, often left struggling on the margins of their new communities, trying to stay safe, carve out a living and rebuild a future for themselves and their families.

Let me draw your attention to a few situations that continue to require this Council’s attention, and decisive efforts on your part to bring about solutions to their devastating consequences.

The situation in the Lake Chad region is emblematic of the dynamic, cross-border nature of today’s displacement crises, and the complex mix of reasons driving human mobility within and beyond the region - conflict and violent extremism, but also underdevelopment, food insecurity, and environmental degradation.

Greater stability is now emerging in some areas of that region, but deep and complex protection issues continue to affect some 200,000 Nigerian refugees in Cameroon, Chad and Niger, and 2.4 million internally displaced people across the Lake Chad region. Tens of thousands of Nigerians are now returning home in fragile circumstances, including many who have recently returned from Cameroon’s Far North to the North East of Nigeria.

Return to Nigeria however must be dealt with cautiously in the current circumstances. There has been considerable progress on security, but conflict is not yet definitively resolved, and the underlying drivers of the crisis - underdevelopment, compounded by climate change - remain to be addressed.  Amidst this fragility, it is more essential than ever that refugees make informed choices, that their return is voluntary, and takes place in conditions that allow them to re-establish themselves and rebuild their lives in a sustainable manner. By contrast, involuntary or precipitous return could be destabilising, at a moment when greater, not less, stability is needed. In this respect, the Government of Cameroon, the Government of Nigeria and UNHCR have recently concluded a Tripartite Agreement on Voluntary Repatriation, and we hope to be able to use this as a basis for concrete cooperation between the two countries in support and in the interests of refugees. 

In West Africa, solutions have proven elusive for more than 140,000 refugees from Mali still in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, and almost 37,000 internally displaced people in Mali itself. The security environment in that region is of great concern, and worryingly, we are now observing new internal displacement and cross-border movements. It is essential that your attention remains on Mali during this crucial period, and engagement and support sustained to complete the transition to peace.

The Somalia displacement is still one of the largest and most protracted globally, with more than 2 million internally displaced people and 900,000 refugees – a situation now compounded by food insecurity, and the threat of famine. The longer this situation persists, the more compelling the imperative to push for solutions. In September last year, I appointed a Special Envoy for the Somali refugee situation, with the aim of mobilising humanitarian, diplomatic and fundraising efforts at the national and regional level to help galvanise a new collective push in this respect. The Special Summit on Durable Solutions for Somali Refugees convened by IGAD and hosted by the Government of Kenya in March was a landmark event, and the resulting Nairobi Declaration provides an unprecedented opportunity to address the situation in host countries and Somalia simultaneously, and holistically.

But the situation that worries me most deeply is indeed South Sudan. I visited Juba and Bentiu, where I saw for myself how the tragic escalation of violence since last July and a deficit of governance is blighting the lives of people who have already suffered for decades, often displaced multiple times. One third of the population is now displaced - including approximately two million inside the country and another two million as refugees.

The impact is now made more acute by famine, as livelihoods and markets are disrupted by conflict, and drought takes its toll. It is almost, Madam Chair, as if the country is emptying itself of its people. The displaced people I spoke to - no matter who they were, or where they came from - had one strong common message - the need for peace, and for responsible political leadership to bring that about, in an inclusive manner - a truly inclusive manner - and in the interests of all.

Six surrounding countries, already struggling with their own social, economic and development challenges are shouldering the weight of the influx, with Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda among those particularly affected. I have recently appointed a Regional Refugee Coordinator for the South Sudan situation, to coordinate the work of UNHCR and our partners, and to act as my Special Advisor for this situation.

In Gambella yesterday, here in Ethiopia, I met with refugees who echoed that call for peace, and also members of host communities generously sharing their resources, their land, their services and their infrastructure with refugees. Regrettably, as in the other situations I have mentioned, the hospitality of host countries is not adequately matched by financial contributions, and alarming shortfalls are emerging.

UNHCR has had a strong and longstanding collaboration with the African Union and its predecessor. We signed our first Memorandum of Understanding in 1969, and as major refugee crises emerged on the continent over subsequent decades, the OAU led the way in demonstrating the value and impact of regional approaches in tackling displacement crises, and in reinforcing the international protection framework – most notably through the adoption of the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention and later, the Kampala Convention on internally displaced persons, the anniversaries of which we look forward to marking with you in 2019. We also very much welcome the measures currently being pursued by the African Union Commission aimed at strengthening the role of states to prevent, prepare, respond and recover more effectively from humanitarian crises.

The AU plays a fundamental role in addressing the circumstances that drive displacement today, and I urge you to place the plight of the displaced at the centre of your engagement in situations affected by fragility and conflict. The search for solutions to these and other displacement crises is fundamentally linked to addressing the root causes that drive and accelerate division and violent conflict. 

The AU Peace and Security architecture plays a key role in strengthening security through its peacekeeping and peace support missions, and in pursuing solutions through its engagement in peace building and post-conflict reconstruction and development. As you will appreciate, and as we havw aid countless times, there can be no humanitarian solutions to these crises. There is a need to step up early warning and preventive diplomacy supported by early action, as well as to continue efforts to firmly address human rights violations and impunity and to deepen democracy and good governance across the continent.

The New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants, adopted by the 193 member states of the UN on 19 September last year, is a milestone for global solidarity and refugee protection.  It provides a powerful platform for change - clearly articulating that the provision of international protection and durable solutions for refugees is a global public good; and that protecting those who are forced to flee – and supporting the countries that shelter them – are shared international responsibilities that must be borne more equitably, and in a more predictable manner.

At the Leaders’ Summit on the following day, many Member States - and in particular, African States - made concrete commitments reflecting enormous generosity and solidarity, as well as political will to enable millions of refugees to pursue self-reliance and live in dignity while in exile. Many made particular commitments to the provision of education to refugee children, reflecting awareness that a peaceful future for Africa can only be built on education and opportunity.

The New York Declaration also contains concrete plans for applying its provisions in new and protracted large-scale refugee situations. UNHCR is now working with a number of States in developing and applying the CRRF - the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework - annexed to the Declaration, and which is the primary instrument for translating it into practice. This has four stated objectives: easing pressure on host communities; improving refugee self-reliance; increasing access to third country solutions; and creating conditions in countries of origin for voluntary return in safety and dignity.

UNHCR is currently supporting the pilot application of the CRRF in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia and Tanzania, sharing good practices across the CRRF pilot countries to strengthen responses and contribute to a stock-taking of experience that will support the development of a Global Compact for Refugeesto be adopted next year, in 2018.

It is not a coincidence that the majority of the CRRF pilots are in Africa. We could say that the reason is the presence of many refugee crises; but it is also an acknowledgement that the innovative approaches pioneered by certain African governments, have something to teach the rest of the world. It is critical, however that these exceptional examples are not taken for granted, and instead are supported and nurtured to continue to flourish.

But the models and partnerships through which this happens must adapt to a new reality; that humanitarian action alone cannot meet the challenge of large-scale displacement; and that development resources and approaches - targeting both refugees and host communities, and with a particular focus on jobs, education and addressing vulnerability - are vital.

Also central to the CRRF is an early focus on solutions - an area in which the AU’s - and your - role is critical. Here, we need to engage across the entire spectrum of displacement - recognising that addressing state fragility and resolving the plight of internally displaced people are essential to stabilising and resolving broader population movements. In the Lake Chad region, in Somalia, in South Sudan, and elsewhere, restoring rights and securing solutions for the internally displaced, and by extension to refugees hosted by neighbouring countries, requires a carefully sequenced combination of political, security, development and humanitarian engagement.

UNHCR is also contributing to the development of a Global Compact on Migration. It is important to maintain a clear distinction between refugees and migrants, noting that refugees are unable to return home because of conflict and persecution. But having embarked on perilous journeys, migrants and refugees are often exposed to similar risks. Irregular migration and mixed migratory flows are a growing challenge, and I very much welcome the efforts of the African Union in this respect, including through the Horn of Africa Initiative on Human Trafficking and Smuggling of Persons, and the Rabat and Khartoum Processes. Transit countries should be supported. In some of them, such as Libya, support must be coupled once again with more robust conflict resolution. 

Addressing displacement - and the acute breakdown in the relationship between citizens and their governments that it represents - is essential if Africa is to realize and achieve its aspirations for sustained peace and stability.

The New York Declaration is an important platform for collective engagement in pursuit of this goal - marking an important commitment by world leaders to save lives, protect rights, search for durable solutions and share responsibility on a global scale.

By Filippo Grandi,

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees   


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