Saturday, February 09, 2019

The African Refugee Crisis

Africa's refugees are on the move. Many Africans are facing an uncertain future as refugees. They flee on foot, by car, by boat, within countries and across borders. In 2018, the continent again recorded large numbers of refugees. It is the main topic at an AU summit in Addis Ababa.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR recorded a total of 30 million Africans in need on the continent in 2018. This figure includes almost 7.5 million refugees, 630,000 asylum-seekers, one million stateless persons and around half a million returned refugees. But the largest group is still made up of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Over 18 million Africans have had to leave their homes but are unable or unwilling to leave their country.

The situation is most critical in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Nearly 4.5 million Congolese were driven from their homes in 2017 but remained in nearby regions. A further 815,000 Congolese left the country in 2018: 30 percent went to Uganda, 10 percent to Rwanda and 9 percent to Tanzania. "This is partly because this country is too big for many to travel," Yayboke told DW. There are rebellions in eastern Congo, unrest in the south and Ebola in the northeast. "There is no place where these people can turn."

This trend can be observed not only in the DRC. In Somalia (2.7 million IDPs) and Nigeria (2 million IDPs), the number of people displaced in the country exceeds the number of people who have fled abroad. "Of all displaced people, the number of internally displaced people is the highest," Yayboke said. "There are two reasons for this: Many of them hope to be able to return home sometime, which will sadly never happen for most of them. And the second phenomenon is that these people do not have the means to leave their country. That makes them the most vulnerable people because they have to live as internally displaced persons for long. They are the most threatened people."

IDPs' biggest problem is that they are hardly protected by international law. "If I'm a refugee and I cross an international boundary, I can claim asylum. And there is a process for me as a refugee. If I'm internally displaced, the international community has less ability to support me because there are issues of sovereignty that come into play. If I'm displaced internally, I don't have a whole lot of recourse under international law,"  Yayboke explained.

There are currently many IDPs, especially in East African countries. In the last two years, the problem seems to be spreading to West Africa: While in 2017 Mali still had comparatively few IDPs (38,000), one year later the figure had almost tripled. A similar development can be seen in Burkina Faso. This is no surprise, says Yayboke. In his opinion, this is due to the steadily growing presence of terrorist groups such as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). 

Kathleen Newland, co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute and member of the US Board of Directors for UNHCR points out that returning refugees often become internally displaced persons as soon as they arrive back in their country of origin. For many, it is out of the question to resettle in their home town, so people move to other places. Only a small proportion of 400,000 refugees returned to their home country in 2018

Most Africans who see fleeing abroad as a solution are drawn to neighboring states. The country that most people are leaving is South Sudan. The youngest state in Africa is marked by civil war and famine; almost 2.3 million people have fled, mainly to Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan. These three countries are also the top destinations for African refugees in general. Uganda topped the list in 2017 with 1.4 million refugees. By comparison, three years earlier the figure was less than one and a half million. The country is easily accessible for many refugees, Newland explains. "Uganda is very hospitable towards refugees, gives them land and encourages them to become self-sufficient." Some refugees have lived there in camps for years. New generations are born there, which naturally increases the number of refugees. But Newland believes that it is becoming increasingly difficult for Uganda to maintain this open policy.

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