One cannot approach the subjects relating to refugees and internally displaced persons in Africa without referring to Kampala, the Ugandan capital. The African Union Commission has understood this and has given an appointment at the edge of Lake Victoria, from December 2 to 6, 2019, to the African Union member states, to international organizations, to Civil Society Organizations and representatives of refugee and IDP communities for a high-level dialogue. As a backdrop to this dialogue, the commemoration of the fifty (50) years of the OAU Convention governing the specific aspects of refugee problems in Africa and the ten (10) years of the African Union Convention on the protection and assistance to displaced persons in Africa. 2019 has been proclaimed in this sense by the African Union, the year of refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons. The Kampala meeting made it possible to take stock of the mobilizations around this theme throughout this year and to review the bleak situation of refugees and internally displaced persons on the continent.
Some figures to better visualize the explosive situation of internally displaced persons and refugees on the continent. At the end of December 2018, there were 16.8 million Africans displaced within their own country as a result of armed conflict or community violence. This figure changed rapidly during the year 2019 which saw the escalation of conflicts in Libya, the Sahel, Central and East Africa. The most telling examples are those of Burkina Faso, which saw the number of its internally displaced persons drop from 80,000 in January 2019 to 500,000 in mid-October 2019, due to the terrorist attacks that dot this country, and the example of DRC whose number of internally displaced persons increased from 3.1 million at the end of December 2018 to 4.5 million in mid-October. To these data should be added the figures of populations displaced by natural disasters (floods, droughts, storms, etc.), the number of which has also increased following Cyclones Idai and Kenneth which hit southern Africa this year making more than 617,000 displaced people just in Mozambique and its neighboring countries.
Refugees, that is to say the displaced populations who have crossed the borders of their states, are still as numerous in Africa with persistent conflicts in South Sudan, Somalia, the DRC, northern Mali, Libya, etc. In addition to these armed conflicts, there are political challenges from the powers that be, which are increasingly causing confrontation and exile from populations considered to be opponents of the ruling parties. In 2018, of the 20 million refugees in the world, a third, or nearly 7 million refugees, were in Africa. A situation which is not about to improve with the continuous temptation of the Presidents in certain African countries not to move towards alternation in power or in other countries to share the resources of the country fairly for the benefit of all communities. It is in this rather gloomy context that the African Union Commission has decided to bring together States and all the actors involved on the subject to reflect on the durable solutions to be found for refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons.
Following a meeting of youth organizations and a continental consultation, the high-level dialogue provided an initial opportunity to discuss the causes of this dramatic situation on the continent. The governance of African states has been directly pointed out as the source of all the misfortunes on the continent. The lack of alternation, corruption, patronage, the interference of foreign powers and multinationals in the affairs of African countries have been cited as so many root causes of this deplorable state of the continent. Representatives of the refugee and IDP communities have repeatedly denounced the African Union’s inaction in the face of the crises that have led them into exile. The African Union Commission officials present at the dialogue reacted by explaining to the participants the powerlessness of the commission vis-à-vis the States which remain sovereign in their national policies. In addition, the African Union Commission, although having an architecture for peace and conflict management, often finds difficulties to gather around the negotiating tables the protagonists of wars in Africa. The need for the emergence of continental leadership has been highlighted by many youths present who struggle to understand why so much effort since the creation of the OAU in 1963 does not lead to significant results to avoid massive displacement on the continent.
Various interventions on good practices in accompanying refugees and IDPs have marked this high-level dialogue. Certainly very moving moments when the voices were given to refugees, internally displaced persons and civil society organizations, who were each able to present how they proceeded to restore hope to the damned of the conflicts. We have witnessed the testimony of refugees who, thanks to the learning of a manual trade, fashion, entrepreneurship, cultural activities or thanks to scholarships, have been able to rebuild a new life in their host countries. These “success stories” reveal that the suffering of the uprooting experienced by any displaced person can be overcome thanks to the helping hand of host countries, humanitarian organizations and generous people in the host communities. But the success of some refugees and displaced people can not hide the immense forest of difficulties that are the daily lot of exiles.
Poignant testimonies have made it possible to grasp the lot of injustices the refugees and internally displaced persons in the camps endure daily. The precarious infrastructures of these camps lead to the most difficult living conditions. The limited sanitation available for the thousands of people living in the camps creates a real hygiene problem. Difficulties in accessing water and firewood to cook makes life even more difficult for refugees and internally displaced people. A traditional Chef from Cameroon, present at the Dialogue to represent the platform of African customary chiefs, told me during a break that refugee camps in Africa would deserve the name of concentration camp in the way the refugees are placed under high security surveillance. Rather, he suggested the creation of villages of hospitality in the communities hosting refugees and internally displaced people in order to restore dignity to those people who lost everything in their flight. Another testimony gathered during a plenary session was that of a young participant from North East Nigeria, where Boko Haram is rampant, who described the living areas of the humanitarian organizations staff as Paradise facing the Hell of the camps. He noted that the conditions offered to the personnel of humanitarian organizations are by far fairly luxurious in view of the poverty and destitution that prevail in the camps for refugees and internally displaced persons.
Another area of concern, especially for refugees, is identification. The process of examining applications for asylum and granting refugee status is alarmingly slow in many African countries, forcing exiles to live in hiding. Even with the granting of refugee status, access to identification documents is one of the most difficult processes. One of the leaders of the refugee communities who was returning from a meeting in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), told me that many other refugees from different African countries could not make the trip because their host countries did not did not give them a travel document. The mobility of refugees within host countries is under strict surveillance. In fact, some host countries go so far as to issue exit permits so that a refugee can leave their accommodation camp. Under these conditions, it is difficult to seek decent work to get out of the beggar life the refugees live into camps.
Access to work is one of the strongest demands on all refugees. They all want decent work that can provide them with a living wage. Discrimination is often legion at this level where refugees are treated less well at the salary level than nationals even when they work for humanitarian organizations. Some host states, through a policy of national preference for employment, make it difficult for all refugees to access decent jobs. Building a future in these conditions for them and their children becomes almost impossible. For those who are excluded from the job market by security measures limiting the mobility of refugees or by difficulties accessing informal sector activities, there are no other options left than prostitution. The precariousness in the camps of refugees and internally displaced people feeds prostitution and all kinds of smuggling. Among the accomplices of these phenomena are officials of UN agencies or humanitarian organizations who take advantage of the suffering of refugees or internally displaced persons to sexually abuse some. This sad picture leads the refugees to want to quickly leave the camps to return to their countries even if the situation is not the best there.
The issue of “voluntary return” of refugees has occupied much of the discussion because of the current situation of Burundian refugees in Tanzania. Following a Burundi-Tanzania-UNHCR tripartite agreement, hundreds of thousands of Burundian refugees are being urged by the Tanzanian government to return to their country, while the situation in Burundi is far from stable. To achieve this, the Tanzanian government uses various means of pressure such as limits on the mobility of refugees, arrests, and blockages in access to all income-generating activities. In these conditions ; it is difficult to speak of the “voluntary return” of refugees. The difficult debate on the conditions for voluntary return comes up every time during our meetings with UN officials or heads of refugee agencies in the host countries. When the situation in the countries of departure remains always in conflict with the power in place and that the transitional justice has not resulted in a real reconciliation or pardon between the citizens, is it not a suicide to push the refugees to return at their home ? Conflictual reintegration in communities leads to new exile as returnees face difficulties of finding one’s agricultural land, business or employment that is already taken by another person. It is therefore not surprising that returnees suffered of mental and physical health problems.
For refugee-hosting countries, the burden of managing refugee camps justifies the pressure put on refugees to return home. While wars are profitable for western arms dealers, it is up to neighboring countries in conflict zones to bear the heavy burden of hospitality to refugees. Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya are among the countries in the world that receive the most refugees along with Turkey and other countries bordering Syria and Iraq. It should be noted that Africa is also suffering the consequences of the conflicts in Yemen and the Persian Gulf which are draining Syrian, Iraqi or Yemeni refugees on the continent. Faced with the limits of the solidarity shown by the rich Western states towards African countries in the management of refugees, the latter have no choice but to push refugees towards the door to ensure that their scarce resources benefit their citizens. Difficult to imagine lasting solutions to such a scenario as it is utopian to think that one day armed conflicts, conflicts for power and of equitable distribution of resources will end in the world.
The mixed nature of migration currently on the African continent has justified our presence at this high-level dialogue. Migrant flows reveal a mixture of asylum seekers seeking international protection, those displaced by natural disasters and migrant workers looking for employment opportunities. The legal framework that governs each of these population movements being different, the solutions to be provided for each category are the subject of amalgamation by the States. Thus have we seen the emergence in recent years, on the initiative of the countries of the European Union, of the notion of “Safe Countries”, that is to say whose nationals should not request an asylum request . The tragedy is that no country can be considered safe because in any country a person’s life can be threatened because of their race, ethnicity, religion, political or philosophical opinion, gender, sexual orientation. The countries of the European Union have thus contributed to destroying the concept of persecution, one of the fundamental concepts of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees.
And as if that were not enough, in its desire to block African and Arab migration to its continent, the European Union continues to multiply the obstacles to the international mobility of people in the countries of Africa and the Middle East. By funding, with the assistance of UN agencies, policies to secure African borders, the European Union is helping authoritarian states in Africa to prevent people persecuted in their countries from fleeing to other horizons. The latter therefore use the service of smugglers who are in turn criminalized by anti-migrant’s smuggling laws. Far from creating legal channels to facilitate the request for international protection to the persecuted people, the European Union continues its flight forward by deciding to outsource asylum processing centers to authoritarian African states. European countries have come to criminalize the solidarity towards asylum seekers manifested by charitable organizations which have the courage to undertake the rescue of their makeshift boats in the Mediterranean Sea. This shocking situation can not be ignored at the African level, it was our duty to raise it during the high-level dialogue to ensure awareness of our collective responsibility in the face of the tragedy of mixed African migration.