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African Refugees and Immigrants: Challenges, Changes, Champions

African Refugees and Immigrants: Challenges, Changes, Champions

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Published by David Shinn
Remarks by Ambassador David H. Shinn at the Ethiopian Community Development Council 16th National Conference on May 3, 2010, in Arlington, Virginia.
Remarks by Ambassador David H. Shinn at the Ethiopian Community Development Council 16th National Conference on May 3, 2010, in Arlington, Virginia.

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Published by: David Shinn on May 03, 2010
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African Refugees and Immigrants: Challenges, Changes, ChampionsEthiopian Community Development Council16
National Conference3 May 2010Arlington, VirginiaRemarks by David H. ShinnElliott School of International AffairsGeorge Washington UniversityIntroductionMy remarks today will focus on refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs)in Africa. Internally displaced people leave their usual place of residence in order toescape from famine, persecution, armed conflict or violence. But they remain in their country of origin. Refugees move for the same reasons but cross an international border to seek refuge.According to the 1951 convention on the status of refugees, a refugee is definedas a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race,religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, isoutside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwillingto avail himself to the protection of that country.”Refugees in AfricaWhile Africa, including North Africa, constitutes about 15 percent of the world’stotal population, it accounts for about one-fifth of the world’s refugees and almost half of the world’s IDPs. The good news is that the number of refugees in Africa has beenfalling in recent years. Depending on crises around the world, the refugee and IDPstatistics change significantly from one year to the next.According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there were at theend of 2008 about ten million refugees worldwide. Asia and the Middle East eachaccounted for a higher number of refugees than Africa. The three largest African refugee producing countries at the end of 2008 were Somalia (560,000), Sudan (420,000) and theDemocratic Republic of the Congo (370,000). The three most important African refugeehosting countries at the end of 2008 were Chad (330,000), Tanzania (322,000) and Kenya(320,000).In recent years, with the exception of Zimbabwe, southern Africa has producedrelatively few refugees. The Sahel region, except for Chad, has also been relatively freeof refugees recently. While Africa continues to produce a disproportionate number of theworld’s refugees in relation to its total population, its share of the global refugee problemhas actually been falling since the early 1990s. As recently as 1994, Africa had almosthalf of the world’s refugees.
Internally Displaced Persons in AfricaWhile the number of African refugees has been declining, the number of IDPs hasgrown. African countries with the highest number of IDPs are Sudan, DemocraticRepublic of the Congo and Somalia.The growing IDP problem has resulted in the 2009 African Union Convention onIDPs, also known as the Kampala Convention. Once ratified by fifteen African countries,the Convention will lay the foundation for applying humanitarian law to IDPs. So far,only Uganda has ratified the Convention. Under the Convention, both governments andarmed groups are required to protect and assist IDPs. The Convention will make adifference, however, only if African leaders and rebel groups make a commitment toobserve its provisions.Sympathy Decreases for Refugees in AfricaDuring the first twenty years of independence, Africa had a largely well-deservedreputation as a continent that treated refugees well. This was often attributed to thecontinent’s tradition for hospitality. The Organization of African Unity, now the AfricanUnion, urged that African countries repatriate refugees to their country of originvoluntarily. African countries also established improved legal standards for the treatmentof refugee populations. During these earlier years, the number of refugees was usuallymanageable and did not impose a severe economic burden on the host country. Hostcountries could generally rely on international agencies like UNHCR and donor governments to provide the necessary food, shelter, education and health care for therefugee populations.During the past twenty-five years African states have been less willing to acceptrefugees. Much of the reason for this change in attitude can be explained by the increase,at least until recently, in the numbers of refugees seeking asylum in neighboringcountries. Another important difference is the fact that refugees in the last twenty-fiveyears are no longer victims of anti-colonial and liberation struggles. The more recentrefugees are the result of internal African conflicts. Neighboring countries are lesssympathetic to their plight.There are some other factors that have contributed to this new reluctance to acceptrefugees.First, the industrialized states have eroded the right of asylum and undermined the principles of refugee protection. Some countries instituted measures to restrict or even prevent the arrival of refugees. African countries see more prosperous countries takingthese actions and wonder why they should be so accommodating.Second, African states that willingly received refugees in the past concluded thattheir generosity was not appreciated.Third, donor countries have become less willing to pay for long-term refugeeassistance costs.Fourth, with the arrival of huge numbers of refugees, there has been increasingdamage to the environment in the host country.Fifth, refugees are frequently associated, often unfairly, with problems such ascrime, banditry and prostitution.2
Areas populated by refugees may become the targets of direct military attack.Examples include attacks on Sudanese refugee camps in northern Uganda. Years agoarmed forces from Burundi attacked refugees in neighboring Tanzania. There aresometimes nonmilitary security threats against refugees that involve violence, coercion,intimidation and criminal activity. This includes conscription into militia forces,arbitrary arrest and abductions for forced marriage. UNHCR guidelines strictly prohibituse of refugee camps for these purposes.Guidelines for Assisting RefugeesThere is a body of international refugee law that is designed to protect people whowere forced to leave their own country. But this legislation was designed by states thatwished to protect their national interests and protect their own security concerns. Thereare a number of basic policies for trying to protect refugees. Individuals who do notqualify for refugee status or are armed and known to be responsible for acts of intimidation should not be accommodated in refugee camps. Individuals who havecommitted genocide and other crimes against humanity should not be allowed to escape justice by claiming refugee status.Refugees should, as far as possible, be located some distance away from the border of the country they are fleeing so that they will not become involved in the problems of the country they left. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to locaterefugee camps well back from the international border due to social, political or geographical considerations.It is difficult to establish the rule of law in a refugee camp. Large numbers of destitute people live in close quarters in difficult conditions and for an unknown period of time. The camp population sometimes includes individuals and groups who have beenresponsible for terrible crimes in their country of origin. There are steps one can take toaddress this problem.First, refugee hosting countries need to strengthen their judicial systems.Second, it is important to inform refugees of their obligations under internationaland national law.Third, it helps to limit tension and conflict in the refugee camps by establishingmechanisms to resolve disputes between individuals and groups. Education facilities,vocational training, cultural and sports events also help.Eventually, most refugees can return to their country of origin. In Africa in recentyears, large numbers have returned home. Many Somalis in Ethiopia returned toSomaliland and Eritreans in Sudan returned to Eritrea. Many Liberians also returnedhome. There is a well-established principle that refugee repatriation should be whollyvoluntary.The United States, Refugees, Immigrants and SlavesI want to make a few comments about U.S. refugee assistance and resettlement policy. The United States has been the single most important supporter of UNHCR over the years and has a generally good record in support of refugees overseas andresettlement of refugees in the United States. U.S. legislation permits the entry of a3

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