By the end of May 2018, close to 2.6 million South Sudanese had fled the country. The total number of refugees is now almost double what it was at the start of 2017 and is expected to continue rising. South Sudan – a country with one of the youngest populations in the world – produces one of the highest numbers of refugees in the world.
According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Filippo Grandi: ‘If the war [in South Sudan] doesn’t stop, refugee numbers will rise to 3 million in 2018. The conflict is purging South Sudan of the people who should be the greatest resource of a young nation. They should be building the country, not fleeing it.’
Where do most refugees come from?
Neighbouring countries are feeling the effects of the continued conflict and mass exodus. Close to 90% of South Sudan’s refugees are in three countries: Uganda (1.06 million), Sudan (763 144) and Ethiopia (443 352). With no sign of addressing the root causes of the conflict, the future could be equally bleak for the Horn and the rest of East Africa.
South Sudan is not the only humanitarian crisis in Africa. The numbers who are forced to flee their homes across the continent are increasing. According to the UNHCR 2017 Global Trends Report released this week, the refugee population in sub-Saharan Africa alone increased by 1.1 million in 2017.
Of the UNHCR’s six priority situations worldwide, three are in Africa: Burundi, Nigeria and South Sudan. In addition, instability, human rights abuses and/or ongoing conflicts in the Central African Republic (CAR), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Eritrea, Mali, Somalia and Sudan have worsened the internally displaced and refugee situation in those countries and their regions. Sub-Saharan Africa currently hosts an estimated 6.3 million refugees – one-third of the world’s refugee population.
Today Africa’s refugee and internally displaced crisis stretches from the Lake Chad Basin through the Great Lakes Region to the Horn of Africa. The numbers of internally displaced in these regions are likely higher than estimates suggest. For example, the DRC alone has just under 4.5 million internally displaced people (double what it was at the end of 2016). Nigeria has been making efforts to get some of the over 1.7 million internally displaced people back home.
UNHCR’s Global Trends Report shows that 85% of refugees are hosted in and by developing countries, including in Africa. However, much focus when it comes to African forced migration is still on those who flee to Europe.
While this is important, given the rising numbers of people dying at sea trying to make their way there, the growing crisis in Africa becomes an afterthought. Save for humanitarian agencies, refugee flows in Africa receive considerably less attention. That some of UNHCR’s key campaigns are grossly underfunded makes the situation more dire.
According to the UNHCR, African countries are stepping up to the challenge with their asylum provision and refugee protection – despite their own socio-economic and political problems. Several host countries (themselves often sources of refugees) keep their borders open, protect refugees and develop strategies to properly manage mass inflows.
For example, Uganda’s treatment of refugees is lauded by UNHCR spokesman William Spindler: ‘They are integrated into the community. They are allowed to have access to farming land. So, they are not all in camps,’ he notes.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia – itself a country hosting millions of forcibly displaced – continues to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees. Both Uganda and Ethiopia are among the handful of countries rolling out the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework.
But ensuring safe havens for people is just part of the puzzle. Efforts must be made to address why people are forced to seek refuge elsewhere. This means countries should work on preventing (or where near impossible to do so, countering) the drivers of mass forced movement.
To do this, states need a better understanding to inform their actions. Beyond immediate short-term efforts to improve refugee protections, Africa should dedicate efforts to tackle the root causes of the refugee crises. These include war, indiscriminate violence, weak governance and endemic poverty. Some are easier fixed than others, but all require long-term and sustained efforts.
There has been a consistent rollout of ‘fixes’ since 2015, particularly through joint collaboration with the European Union under the Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. These need to be ramped up and properly tailored.
As countries negotiate the final text of what will be the Global Compact on Refugees, reflections on what has failed (forced repatriations, for example) and what can work (localised inclusive peacebuilding, perhaps) are key.
There is an opportunity for countries like Ethiopia and Uganda to share their lessons and lead on a progressive African refugee response. Finding sustainable solutions isn’t just for Africa to do. It should be the shared responsibility of all states.
Written by Ottilia Anna Maunganidze, Head, Special Projects, ISS Pretoria.