African refugees neglected as crises worsen

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World Refugee Day – marked on 20 June – is a reminder that Africa and the world cannot peacefully maintain the current pace of displacement.

As of May, 120 million people had been forcibly displaced worldwide this year – up from 35.8 million in 2012, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) annual Global Trends Report. Most (75.9 million) are internally displaced persons (IDPs) within their own countries.

Political unrest and violence, conflict, climate change and natural disasters are increasingly compounding and unleashing crises of unparalleled magnitude and complexity.

For years, the Institute for Security Studies has warned that African refugees are rising in number at untenable rates, while durable solutions and humanitarian aid continue to shrink. Many long-term African crises are chronically underreported, underfunded and under-addressed, regardless of severity. Extremism, political instability, violence and human suffering thrive in negligence. The world’s responsibility to African refugees extends beyond humanitarian goodwill; peace and development depend on it.

Around 37% (45.9 million) of those forcibly displaced are in Africa, comprising around 8.9 million refugees, 1.1 million asylum seekers, 35 million IDPs and one million stateless persons. Sudan’s conflict, resurging violence in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and persistent violence and flash flooding in Somalia drove new mass displacement in 2023. Many others face protracted displacement due to longstanding conflicts or instability.

The UNHCR report warns against ‘apathy and inaction’ amid soaring displacement. As refugee numbers grow, so too does underfunding. UNHCR’s 2024 Global Appeal shows a 55% shortfall. Funding shortfalls mean that UNHCR must cut operations to the bare minimum or determine who receives aid while cutting others.

Refugees in Africa are protected by the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol and the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Convention. The latter expands the Refugee Convention’s scope to include indiscriminate events such as external aggression, occupation, foreign domination and incidents seriously disturbing public order. It allows for prima facie refugee recognition, meaning people don’t need to be individually assessed if fleeing. Both conventions contain the nonrefoulement principle preventing countries from removing people when they fear harm.

In recent years, wealthier nations, including the Refugee Convention founders, are rolling back protections, restricting pathways, and supporting fewer solutions in response to rising anti-migrant politics. Many of these measures are directed at and seriously impact Africans.

In April, the United Kingdom (UK) enacted legislation to ensure it can send asylum seekers to Rwanda. This came after a 2023 Supreme Court ruling that the proposed deal was unlawful without guarantees that asylum seekers would be safe and protected. The deal with Rwanda has been widely condemned for degrading the Refugee Convention.

France fast-tracked the 2024 French Immigration Act – ‘the most repressive text since 1945.’ France’s Constitutional Council censured almost half of its provisions before it was enacted. This month, United States (US) President Joe Biden issued an executive order allowing the US to close the border if daily arrivals reached 2 500, and to return migrants across the border, including asylum seekers.

Many African countries are also restricting protections. Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania have been accused of forcefully deporting African migrants, including asylum seekers, into deserts by the truckload using European funds. In late 2023, South Africa released a White Paper aimed at overhauling its migration system, including a proposal to withdraw from the 1951 Refugee Convention and reacceding with reservations.

On 3 June, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) released its annual list of most neglected displacement crises. Nine of the top 10 are contiguous African countries in or near the Sahel region. Displacement is occurring within, or to, other crisis-affected states. The report highlighted that the world had normalised ignoring protracted displacement crises. The rankings are based on media attention, funding, political and diplomatic efforts compared to the number of people in need.

The NRC report ranks Burkina Faso as the most neglected displacement crisis for the second year, with two million IDPs and 36 000 refugees, including 707 000 new displacements in 2023. Warring parties are creating blockades that are trapping two million people in 39 towns and cutting civilians off from aid and information.

The report cites Sudan as an example of the consequences of years-long neglect. One of the most acute current emergencies, more than 10 million people are now displaced, 7.26 million since April 2023 when war erupted between the Sudanese military and Rapid Support Forces. Mass atrocities, including torture, sexual violence and ethnic cleansing, have been documented. Over 25% of Sudanese people have been forced to flee; more than half are children. It has become the worst humanitarian disaster in recent history, with 18 million people acutely hungry. Approximately two million people have fled to neighbouring Chad and South Sudan.

Chad, ranked 189 out of 193 by the Human Development Index, has maintained a generous open-border policy while becoming one of the largest displacement operations. It hosts 1.3 million refugees including 550 000 Sudanese arrivals since April 2023, as well as refugees fleeing Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic and Cameroon. Ninety percent are women; 77% arrive unaccompanied with children.

UNHCR had to suspend biometric verification and protection assessments to prioritise new arrivals due to funding shortfalls. In December 2023, the World Food Programme cut rations for refugees and the government declared a state of emergency for food security, including suspending aid distribution across the border to Darfur.

In the DRC, underfunding resulted in a 79% reduction in protection monitors documenting human rights violations. The Ugandan operation has halted health services and hygiene kits for women since 2022. In South Sudan, flood protection kits and upgraded drainage systems were cancelled.

Refugees have three options for durable solutions: returning home, integrating into host communities, or resettling to third countries. In many cases, returns are not viable, leaving only integration or resettlement.

In 2023, 158 700 refugees were offered resettlement in third countries, a significant increase from 2022 but less than 1% of the total refugee population. Resettlement is reserved for the most vulnerable – elderly, children, ill or disabled people, or survivors of violence or abuse. UNHCR estimates that 2.9 million refugees will require resettlement in 2025.

Kenya currently hosts 700 000 refugees, many of whom came from Somalia in 1991. After years of dependence on aid and growing frustration from local populations, Kenya enacted the 2021 Refugee Act. It recognises the protracted nature of the conflicts driving refugees to Kenya. Once implemented, it will help to socio-economically integrate refugees by expanding their rights to live, work, and access financial services outside of camps. More refugee-hosting countries should consider similar approaches.

World Refugee Day is a reminder that Africa and the world cannot peacefully maintain this displacement pace. The cost of neglecting displaced people and the crises driving them is too high.

Written by Aimée-Noël Mbiyozo, Senior Research Consultant, ISS.

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original article can be found here.