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February 3, 2010


There are probably more refugees in the world today than at any other time in modern history. Nearly half of the world's 10 to 13 million refugees are scattered throughout the African continent.


According to the 1951 Geneva Convention a refugee is any person who:

Owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country…

The Organization of African Unity recently expanded this definition:

The term refugee shall also apply to every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination, or events seriously disrupting public order, in either part or the whole of his country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his place of habitual residence in order to seek refuge in another place outside his country of origin or nationality.


During the sixties, it was generally assumed that colonization had spawned the problem of African refugees, as many came from colonized countries or ones that were under white rule. With progressive independence, however, the number of refugees has not diminished, but increased rapidly. Refugees today generally flee local ethnic, tribal, and religious conflicts.

While drought and famine have always produced refugees in Africa, during the sixties and seventies, with the end of colonialism, minorities in newly-formed states found themselves under the control of other ethnic groups, in states whose boundaries bore no resemblance to the lines of ethnic differentiation. Members of dominant ethnic groups, whether actually more numerous or whether simply having been empowered by the departing colonial power, often place their own personal or group interests first. In response tribal minorities or groups out of power pressed for self-determination, ranging from liberation movements to dissident, ethnic-based political parties.

Independence for African nations occurred sporadically over a fairly long period of time. Even if all colonial powers had withdrawn simultaneously, it would have been impossible to redraw a myriad of boundaries, based on single tribal affiliation, for the whole of the African continent. Plural societies were unavoidable, as would be conflicts as groups adjusted to the departure of colonial powers. In fact, many of the larger ethnic groups had a vested interest in keeping minority groups within single nation states.

While the OAU has agreed to retain the borders left by departing colonialists, Africans have yet to stop fighting over these boundaries. For various reasons, it was deemed politically expedient to cede specific regions to fledgling countries. Yet there are or have been secessionist conflicts in Biafra, Katanga, Eritrea, and Ogaden, to name only a few. The situation in the Ogaden, Western Sahara, and Namibia reflect the failure of colonial powers and later national governments to recognize tribal lines.

All of Africa's refugee problem is not the result of political conflicts within these countries' borders or between countries. Natural disasters, population pressure, and economic recession have contributed to the total number of refugees.

Drought is again over Africa. The New York Times estimated that "150 million Africans are facing food shortages," and in the Karamojo area of Uganda, alone, "30,000 nomads are believed to have starved to death in the last 18 months." One of the more irksome aspects of current food shortages is the growing dependency on South Africa for corn supplies. Kenya imported 128,000 tons of corn from South Africa last year, while Zambia and Mozambique ordered 250,000 and 150,000 tons respectively. Angola, Ivory Coast, Malawi, Mauritius, Zaire, and Zimbabwe are also reported to have purchased from South Africa. South Africa intends to exploit this situation to the fullest. Hendrick Schoeman, Minister of Agriculture, recently stated that "full grain silos will mean that we can talk and negotiate from a position of strength."

The problems resulting from drought are exacerbated by tribal, ethnic, and religious feuds. The 30,000 nomads of Uganda's Karamojo who recently starved to death were clearly victims of tribal conflict who "lost most of their cattle in raids staged among themselves and by starving Ethiopians, Kenyans, Sudanese, and the remains of Field Marshal Amin's army".

Groups fleeing such conflict become refugees. Once they cross national boundaries they face additional problems. They often arrive in the poorest countries in the world during times when drought, rising energy costs, food deficits, and world recession prohibit the host countries from providing even their own citizens with a minimum standard of living. In countries of asylum, programs can, at best, provide for emergency needs. Even then, Kurt Waldheim aptly observed. "The pressures created by the influx are felt throughout the economy: in employment, in housing, in transportation, and in basic health and education services."

Refugees in Africa today are also victims of human rights violations. Oppressive regimes have tortured, massacred, expropriated property, and deprived individuals of civil liberties in order to silence real and imagined opponents. Human rights violations have occurred in response to conflict between states as well as in response to internal upheaval and suppression or dissident opinion. Tyrannical leaders such as Bokassa (Central African Republic), Nguema (Equatorial Guinea), and Amin (Uganda) created hundreds of thousands of refugees. Struggles between national leaders often terrorize local populations. Further, these struggles often end with the military taking sides and eventually seizing power.

One cause of increased violence contributing to the number of refugees is the availability of sophisticated arms, which take many more lives in tribal conflicts. Religious conflicts also contribute to the swelling numbers of refugees in Africa. In general, Muslims from the north confront Christians from the south. In Sudan and Chad, Muslim groups have been consolidating power since the withdrawal of the Christian colonizers. Melaku Kifle, organizer of the Conference on the Situation of Refugees in Africa indicated intolerance by some African leaders to any kind of religious practice. Sects such as the Jehovah's Witnesses have been prohibited from some countries, while in others they have been required to join political parties, a practice which is against their religion.

White-dominated African countries have also produced considerable numbers of refugees. More than a million refugees fled Zimbabwe to neighboring countries. While most of these refugees either have returned or are returning to Zimbabwe, there are tens of thousands who will not return. Likewise, many have fled South Africa and Namibia. Most of these are women and children, although there are a large number of male students from Namibia and south Africa who are fleeing in order to avoid being drafted into the South African armed forces.


The Economist claims that "Conflicting east-west interests in Africa, defended by the superpowers or by surrogates such as France or Cuba, have influenced events. But the refugee upswing in Africa appears to eat least as much a product of Black power struggles as of ideological conflict." African Affairs indicates that, "As long as local and regional problems are not solved politically, these problems are bound to cause the superpowers to take sides in the issues."

The involvement of superpowers complicates already difficult situations. For example, when Siad of Somalia broke with the Soviets in 1977, the Somalian socialist system was not transformed into a democratic or pluralist society. Yet the aid given by the US, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Shah of Iran prolonged conflict in the Ogaden area and force Ethiopia to rely on the Soviets. This, in turn, allowed the Soviets to consolidate their position in Ethiopia. For the Soviets, Ethiopia is clearly the most important country, politically, in the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia offers an entry into North and East Africa. For the US, Somalia offers coastal bases from which a presence can be established both in Middle East and the Indian Ocean.

Before gaining the confidence of the Ethiopian government, the Soviets supplied arms to the Eritreans, a secessionist group in Ethiopia occupying lands along the Red Sea. Soviet allies still supply arms to the Eritreans. The conflict "locks the Ethiopian revolutionary leadership into dependence on Russia arms." In such cases, tribal groups and ethnic minorities are little more than pawns in national and international power struggles, and while it is unclear how much the national governments will gain from these conflicts, ethnic minorities will undoubtedly be forgotten once they have served a specific strategic purpose.


Refugees commonly find themselves in three types of situations. Some are in countries where they can be integrated (Sudan and Tanzania). Others are returning to countries which will need assistance in resettlement (Zimbabwe). The others exist where neither integration or repatriation is presently possible (Djibouti).

In the past, African refugees were able to flee across national borders and remain within their tribal areas. Thus, while arbitrary boundaries split tribal groups and often caused intertribal conflict, these same boundaries allowed groups to find sanctuary with Kinsfolk. While placing strains on the receiving groups, this system provided emergency assistance to many people. Assistance of this type, common through the mid-seventies, places the burden on the inhabitants of the receiving nation. Now, however, the number of refugees is larger and, in many instances, tribal groups' conflict are not going to areas of Kinsfolk. Thus, the previous solutions are not possible.

Refugees are sometimes a welcome sigh in many countries. Nearly every African country needs labor to cultivate idle land. But refugees get the work that nobody else wants. Outside Gerardef in the Sudan, 8,000 Ethiopian refugees work in the fields. Farmers and merchants in the area hire Ethiopian refugees as laborers and servants. Some of the women work in brothels. In Tanzania the government welcomes refugees for economic and humanitarian reasons. Many refugees are put to work tilling the soil. Tanzania recently settled 25,000 Hutu from Burundi and 35,000 Tutsi from Rwanda on colonization projects. The 35,000 Tutsi have been granted citizenship.

The UNHCR is charged with assisting only those refugees that have fled man-made problems rather than natural disasters such as drought a famine. However, it is often hard to separate political from famine refugees, particularly in East Africa and the Horn where drought conditions worsen. While most observers agree that the situation of refugees is embedded in politics and that the solution can hardly come through international aid alone, Waldheim recently instructed participants at the ICARA conference that "It is not, however, the purpose of this conference to devote itself to the underlying causes, no matter what they might be."

To this suggestion Shey Mabu Tota of Cameroon says, The solution of the refugee problem largely depends on a sustained effort by African countries to settle their conflicts in conference rooms and not in battle fields...African governments should strive to end unnecessary squabbling considering the misery it brings to the innocent masses. Solving the refugee problem therefore demands sustained efforts to avoid what forced people to leave their homes in the first place.

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