Millions of People Continue to be Forcibly Displaced in Africa

Even though forced displacement is a global crisis, it is no more obvious than in Africa.

A man carries a mattress into the Tsehaye primary school, which was turned into a temporary shelter for people displaced by conflict, in the town of Shire, Tigray region, Ethiopia, March 15, 2021. Baz Ratner/Reuters

Many communities and individuals are forced to leave their place of origin because of conflict, violence, political persecution, and natural disaster. ‘Some remain within the borders of their countries, also known as internally displaced persons (IDPs), while others flee their country to seek asylum elsewhere.’ A person who seeks the protection of another country is known as an asylum seeker. If they submit an asylum application and the application is successful, they become a recognized refugee.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the total number of forcibly displaced people at the end of 2020 was 82.4 million. Among them are 26.4 million recognized refugees, 48 million IDPs, and 4.1 million asylum seekers. The remaining 3.9 million are those displaced as a result of the economic situation in Venezuela. From among the 78.5 million (not including Venezuela), the majority are displaced from ten countries: Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, South Sudan, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Somalia, Central African Republic (CAR), Eritrea, and Burundi. As such, seven of the ten largest populations of forcibly displaced people are found in countries in Africa. Aside from North Africa, displacement from the four other regions—Central Africa and the Great Lakes, Southern Africa, East and the Horn of Africa, and West Africa—accounts for 32 percent of the global displacement. 

Africa also witnessed new displacement in 2020. In the Sahel region, three quarters of a million people were newly displaced, more than 54,000 fled the Tigray region of Ethiopia into eastern Sudan, and in northern Mozambique, hundreds of thousands were forced to flee the massacre initiated by militant groups. More importantly, the features that characterize population displacement in Africa have implications on both the proposed solutions for the displacement crisis as well as on the overall development of the continent. 

First,  the number of displaced peoples from the overall population is the highest in Africa. Apart from Syria, which currently has the highest percentage of displaced people in proportion to the overall population (76 percent of the Syrian population is now displaced), all other countries that have been exhibiting such features over a long period of time are in Africa. The African country with the highest percentage of displaced people is South Sudan where 35 percent of the population is displaced, followed by CAR (27 percent), Somalia (21 percent), and Eritrea (16 percent).

Second, the vast majority of those displaced remain in their own countries. Over 50 percent of the forcibly displaced populations from Sudan, Somalia, DRC, and CAR are internally displaced. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) 2019 report, the vast majority of displacement from 2009 to 2018, with the exception of 2012, was due to ethnic and sectarian conflicts. Remaining within the borders of a country from which they fled personal persecution based on ethnicity and/or religion leaves a large segment of the displaced population in serious danger.  

Furthermore, the vast majority of those seeking international protection and asylum remain within the continent. The highest number of African asylum seekers and refugees are hosted by other African countries. For example, Kenya hosts 272,490 Somalis as compared to Germany, which hosts 34,640. Uganda hosts 889,054 South Sudanese refugees, and Kenya hosts 123,968 while the UK and France together host only 35,483. 

Uniquely, African countries producing asylum seekers are themselves also hosting asylum seekers from other countries in Africa. For example, South Sudan, one of the most critical countries from which people are displaced, hosts 291,263 Sudanese (from its northern neighbor). For its part, Sudan has since November 2020 has been hosting more than 61,000 people fleeing violence in Tigray, Ethiopia. This compounds existing economic challenges for Sudan as 36 percent of its population are living in poverty, 25 percent of which are living in extreme poverty. 

In such a scenario where the host country itself is facing such levels of poverty, hosting additional groups of displaced persons means that both the displaced population as well as the host population suffer. Reports suggest that those displaced from Tigray are facing hunger and inadequate shelter in Sudan. Such conditions are not confined to Sudan and South Sudan but are also the case for many other struggling African countries which are hosting displaced populations from other African countries.  

One of the most disturbing features of the above statistics is that a majority of those displaced are women and children. The percentage of displaced children under 18 in Africa is higher than all other regions. The estimated proportion of children among refugees hosted in Africa is above 50 percent as compared to 38 percent of the refugees in Europe and 24 percent in the Americas. The percentage of women among displaced populations in Africa is also high. In the East and Horn of Africa, 51 percent of those displaced are women (27 percent adult women and 24 percent young girls). In southern Africa, 49 percent (23 percent adult women and 26 percent girls) and in West and Central Africa the percentage is 54 (26 percent adult women and 28 percent young girls). Women and children are at a higher risk of suffering from different types of abuse including trafficking for the purpose of prostitution, forced labor, and domestic servitude. Research suggests that children and women refugees suffer from trafficking, sexual exploitation, and forced labor more than men. Research also highlights that women’s health is disproportionately affected by extreme climate conditions compared to men.

When Drivers of Displacement Converge

The factors leading to displacement in Africa are complex and intertwined. In addition to ethnic and religious conflicts, other economic and environmental reasons induce displacement including underdevelopment, poverty, inequality, unemployment, corruption, environmental degradation, climate change, and natural disasters. Although most displacement on the continent occurred as a result of conflict, substantial displacement was also witnessed as a result of natural disasters. For example, in 2012, massive floods led to displacements from Nigeria and other West African countries. As such, it is important to understand the aggregate effect of both the drivers and impacts of conflict and disasters. Disaster induced displacement can amplify preexisting conflicts or lead to new ones thus inducing additional displacement.

Impact on UNHCR and Host States

The large numbers of IDPs and displaced populations in neighboring countries combined with the large population exodus Africa has been witnessing since the 1960s has impacted the solutions put forward by both UNHCR and host states.. The immediate response to large scale displacement is how and where to host the displaced. There are two ways to host displaced populations: either to accommodate them in camps or to allow them to self-settle.

Refugee camps are temporary settlements built by host governments or international organizations to offer protection and provide refugees and IDPs with their basic needs. In protracted situations—situations in which at least 25,000 refugees from the same country have been living in exile for more than five consecutive years—the services provided in camps are usually extended to include educational and employment opportunities. While camps are able to easily assist refugees and IDPs, the disadvantage is that they isolate and restrict the movements of their residents. Self-settlement offers displaced populations more freedom of movement and allows them to be self-reliant; most self-settled urban refugees are confined to slums and underdeveloped areas.

Following the first Sudanese civil war of 1955-1972 and the Nigerian Civil war of 1967, rural refugee camps were established to host the displaced populations. The ‘camps’ solution continued to be the preferred approach by African host states for three decades because of the continuous large-scale displacement exacerbated by the displaced populations which remain on the continent in neighboring countries. Camps allowed host governments to isolate refugees and IDPs who were perceived as a ‘problem’ and to oblige the international community to take part in sharing the responsibility. It was only with the issuing of UNHCR’s 1997 Comprehensive strategy on Urban refugees that the rate of building camps in Africa slowed. It is worth adding that nine out of the current twelve largest refugee camps in the world are in Africa. 

Realizing that camps were turning into de facto prisons, the UNHCR continued to advocate against them and to promote the integration of refugees and IDPs in urban areas. In 2009, a UNHCR policy paper on urban refugees highlighted that cities are and should be the appropriate place for refugees. In 2014, UNHCR began phasing out of the camp solution and treated camps as the exception rather than the norm. As a result of this shift in policy, the vast majority of refugees today are self-settled in urban areas. According to the 2018 Refugee Council report, 60 percent of all refugees and 80 percent of all IDPs live in urban areas.

A Long Way to Go

With the exception of a few African countries where refugees are able to find economic opportunities in the informal sector, self-settled urban refugees in most African countries are unable to achieve self-reliance and remain dependent on UNHCR financial aid. If they cannot find accommodation with friends and families, they end up homeless. Even in countries where they are able to find economic opportunities, for example Egypt, Kenya, and South Africa, they are confined to the informal sector, are underpaid, and suffer from xenophobic attacks. Urban policy and the shift away from ‘camps’ as a solution did not entail a comprehensive strategy for local integration and the provision of livelihood opportunities for refugees and IDPs. The decision by African countries, like Kenya, to close down refugee camps was not for the purpose of integrating them in the local societies but for the ultimate hope that they either be repatriated or resettled. Other countries, such as Egypt and South Africa, are against encampment but do not recognize ‘local integration’ as a durable solution.   

Displacement for both IDPs and refugees should be temporary. IDPs should either return to their original place or become integrated into the new communities. 

According to the Inter-Agency Standing Committee’s report on durable solutions for internally displaced persons, “Whatever the cause of internal displacement, or the option chosen by IDPs for their durable solution, IDPs will commonly continue to have residual needs and human rights concerns linked to their displacement”. 

The report published by the Brookings Institution and the University of Bern Project on Internal Displacement in 2010 also says that “IDPs who have physically returned to their place of origin may find that they are unable to rebuild destroyed houses or reclaim their land, because the disaster that displaced them has made the land unsafe for habitation or the land is now occupied by others”.

To assuage the situation, the UNHCR has put forward three durable solutions: repatriation to the country of origin, local integration in the host country, and resettlement to a third country. All African countries are against local integration because of the large-scale displacement in Africa—the burden of which is borne by neighboring countries—and the fragile economic and social infrastructure that does not allow them to fully integrate the displaced populations. In Egypt, for example, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Egyptian government and UNHCR specifies only two solutions to the refugee situation: resettlement and repatriation.

Resettlement was the preferred solution for countries in the Northern Hemisphere following World War II from the 1950s to 1980s. War-ravaged countries were in need of labor to meet the demands of postwar construction requirements, economic expansion, and the loss of labor force. Moreover, the politics of the Cold War encouraged many Western countries adopting the capitalist model to provide resettlement opportunities to those fleeing communist regimes. For example, refugees fleeing communist regimes in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in 1975 were resettled to the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia. The end of the Cold War in 1991 reduced the political will of capitalist countries to provide amnesty to refugees from the Global South. Moreover, African refugees were characterized as culturally and ethnically different and were not welcomed in the North. As such, as of the 1980s, repatriation became the preferred solution.

Repatriation was encouraged and promoted by both UNHCR and the host governments in Africa. This was facilitated by the variation in the political conflicts in the continent. For example, thousands of civilians started to flee Sudan in large numbers during the first Sudanese Civil War in the 1960s. After the Addis Ababa Accord ended hostilities in 1972, the conflict subsided for a while encouraging African host countries to promote repatriation. In fact, many Sudanese were repatriated. 

However, instability emerged again with the imposition of Islamic laws in 1983 forcing many non-Muslims—including those who were previously repatriated—to flee Sudan.  With the signing of the peace agreement between the government of Sudan and the People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) based in the country’s south in 2005, repatriation was promoted not only by host countries but also by UNHCR. A large-scale repatriation process of southern Sudanese civilians started to take place. The process was further expanded following the creation of the new state of South Sudan in 2011. However, many of those repatriated were displaced again in 2013 as South Sudan was rocked by a civil war of its own. By the time that civil conflict was brought to an end in 2018, four million people had again been displaced.  

The same is true of the conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia; both countries alternated between periods of conflict and relative stability. The war which began in 1998 was interrupted by a number of ceasefires but the violence didn’t really fully end until 2018. During periods of conflict, many civilians fled their homes and when hostilities subsided, they were repatriated only to be displaced again with the eruption of a new cycle of violence.

Repatriation in Africa, as such, was promoted without carefully assessing the situation in the countries of origin. Moreover, though the UNHCR’s mandate of refugee repatriation stresses the voluntary character of refugee repatriation. Such character is questioned by many scholars who ask to what extent are refugees provided with the needed information to make an informed decision.

To what extent is the exile experience carefully assessed in terms of its impact on refugees and their ability to return ‘home’, and what does ‘home’ mean for them? These and other questions were usually overlooked when implementing repatriation programs in Africa.

Ending Repeated Cycles

Even though forced displacement is a global phenomenon, repeated violence in Africa has meant that repatriated civilians often find themselves forced to abandon their homes again.

Seven out of the ten countries from which most displacement is taking place worldwide are in Africa, accounting for more than 32 percent of the total global displaced persons, and the highest number of displaced people in proportion to the overall population are found in African countries. The factors leading to displacement are numerous and complex, ranging from ethnic and religious conflicts to economic and environmental reasons. Even though women and children constitute the majority among all displaced populations, the highest percentage is among African countries. Like displacement in other parts of the world, most of those displaced are either accommodated internally or in other countries on the continent. This, however, has more serious implications in Africa as the continent struggles with poverty, economic stagnation, population growth, poor governance, corruption, and unemployment. These features have forced the governments of the continent to resort to strategies that are harmful to both the displaced populations and the host countries. For example, most of those displaced before the 1990s were accommodated in camps that segregated the refugees and IDPs from the local communities, exacerbated the ethnic and religious tensions between those displaced and intensified acts of gender based violence against women. Violence was the trademark of refugee camps in Africa. Repatriation became the most favorable durable solution implemented without careful assessment. Those repatriated were in many cases displaced again either because of the eruption of new conflicts or their inability to reintegrate in their countries of origin.

International cooperation and responsibility-sharing are needed to effectively deal with displacement in Africa. Countries of the North should revisit their resettlement quotas, and resettlement and humanitarian provisions should not only be tied to political interests. African governments should come together to put an end to both their local and regional conflicts. The recent conflict in Tigray is an example of how Displacement will never end unless ethnic struggles in each country and between countries come to an end. Relatively stable governments of the continent together with UNHCR should implement local integration policies that would allow proper integration of refugees and asylum seekers. UNHCR’ repatriation policy should be based on careful assessment ensuring its voluntary character. Last, but not least, it should be remembered that displacement and development are related. Well designed development initiatives could reduce displacement and allow the return of displaced people. Without such a global approach, displacement in Africa will continue.  

Maysa Ayoub is the Associate Director of the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo. She has over 15 years of research and teaching experiences in the field of migration and refugee studies. She researched and published in the field on issues related to asylum policies, livelihoods of refugees, and public opinion and media attitude towards refugees and immigrants. Her PhD on Euro-Mediterranean issues is from the faculty of Economics and Political Science of Cairo University and her MA in Sociology is from the American University in Cairo.

Read More