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African Refugees and Immigrants: Challenges, Changes, Champions

Ethiopian Community Development Council
16th National Conference
3 May 2010
Arlington, Virginia

Remarks by David H. Shinn
Elliott School of International Affairs
George Washington University


My remarks today will focus on refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs)
in Africa. Internally displaced people leave their usual place of residence in order to
escape 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 defined
as 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, is
outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling
to avail himself to the protection of that country.”

Refugees in Africa

While Africa, including North Africa, constitutes about 15 percent of the world’s
total 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 been
falling in recent years. Depending on crises around the world, the refugee and IDP
statistics change significantly from one year to the next.
According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), there were at the
end of 2008 about ten million refugees worldwide. Asia and the Middle East each
accounted 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 the
Democratic Republic of the Congo (370,000). The three most important African refugee
hosting countries at the end of 2008 were Chad (330,000), Tanzania (322,000) and Kenya
In recent years, with the exception of Zimbabwe, southern Africa has produced
relatively few refugees. The Sahel region, except for Chad, has also been relatively free
of refugees recently. While Africa continues to produce a disproportionate number of the
world’s refugees in relation to its total population, its share of the global refugee problem
has actually been falling since the early 1990s. As recently as 1994, Africa had almost
half of the world’s refugees.

Internally Displaced Persons in Africa

While the number of African refugees has been declining, the number of IDPs has
grown. African countries with the highest number of IDPs are Sudan, Democratic
Republic of the Congo and Somalia.
The growing IDP problem has resulted in the 2009 African Union Convention on
IDPs, 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 and
armed groups are required to protect and assist IDPs. The Convention will make a
difference, however, only if African leaders and rebel groups make a commitment to
observe its provisions.

Sympathy Decreases for Refugees in Africa

During the first twenty years of independence, Africa had a largely well-deserved
reputation as a continent that treated refugees well. This was often attributed to the
continent’s tradition for hospitality. The Organization of African Unity, now the African
Union, urged that African countries repatriate refugees to their country of origin
voluntarily. African countries also established improved legal standards for the treatment
of refugee populations. During these earlier years, the number of refugees was usually
manageable and did not impose a severe economic burden on the host country. Host
countries could generally rely on international agencies like UNHCR and donor
governments to provide the necessary food, shelter, education and health care for the
refugee populations.
During the past twenty-five years African states have been less willing to accept
refugees. 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 neighboring
countries. Another important difference is the fact that refugees in the last twenty-five
years are no longer victims of anti-colonial and liberation struggles. The more recent
refugees are the result of internal African conflicts. Neighboring countries are less
sympathetic to their plight.
There are some other factors that have contributed to this new reluctance to accept
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 taking
these actions and wonder why they should be so accommodating.
Second, African states that willingly received refugees in the past concluded that
their generosity was not appreciated.
Third, donor countries have become less willing to pay for long-term refugee
assistance costs.
Fourth, with the arrival of huge numbers of refugees, there has been increasing
damage to the environment in the host country.
Fifth, refugees are frequently associated, often unfairly, with problems such as
crime, banditry and prostitution.

Areas populated by refugees may become the targets of direct military attack.
Examples include attacks on Sudanese refugee camps in northern Uganda. Years ago
armed forces from Burundi attacked refugees in neighboring Tanzania. There are
sometimes 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 prohibit
use of refugee camps for these purposes.

Guidelines for Assisting Refugees

There is a body of international refugee law that is designed to protect people who
were forced to leave their own country. But this legislation was designed by states that
wished to protect their national interests and protect their own security concerns. There
are a number of basic policies for trying to protect refugees. Individuals who do not
qualify for refugee status or are armed and known to be responsible for acts of
intimidation should not be accommodated in refugee camps. Individuals who have
committed 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 locate
refugee 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 been
responsible for terrible crimes in their country of origin. There are steps one can take to
address this problem.
First, refugee hosting countries need to strengthen their judicial systems.
Second, it is important to inform refugees of their obligations under international
and national law.
Third, it helps to limit tension and conflict in the refugee camps by establishing
mechanisms 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 recent
years, large numbers have returned home. Many Somalis in Ethiopia returned to
Somaliland and Eritreans in Sudan returned to Eritrea. Many Liberians also returned
home. There is a well-established principle that refugee repatriation should be wholly

The United States, Refugees, Immigrants and Slaves

I 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 and
resettlement of refugees in the United States. U.S. legislation permits the entry of a

limited number of refugees from Africa. All refugees must meet the following four
conditions to enter the United States:
First, they must comply with the definition of refugee contained in the U.S.
Immigration and Nationality Act;
Second, the President must determine that the refugees are of special
humanitarian concern to the United States;
Third, they must otherwise be admissible under U.S. law; and
Fourth, they must not be firmly resettled in any foreign country.
The largest groups of refugees admitted to the United States in recent years come
from Somalia and Ethiopia. Other African countries that have sent large numbers of
refugees are Sudan, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Let me end with a little known fact about the movement historically of Africans to
the United States. More sub-Saharan Africans have arrived in the United States as
immigrants and refugees since 1990 than the total number who arrived as slaves before
slave trafficking was outlawed in 1807. More legal African immigrants (about 50,000)
arrive annually than slaves arrived annually during the peak years of the slave trade. This
background underscores the relative importance today of the movement of Africans to the
United States for very different reasons.