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2010 Arlington, Virginia Remarks by David H. Shinn Elliott School of International Affairs George Washington University Introduction 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 (320,000). 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.
2 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 refugees. 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.
3 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 voluntary. 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
4 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.