The advent of the 11th World Refugee Day offers a unique opportunity to determine how both the Arab Spring and the continuing political turmoil in the Horn of Africa and Central Africa have affected the extent to which refugee populations are protected and served. Recent developments threaten to hamper the chances of finding durable solutions at both global and regional levels.
Africa Refugee Day and the gains of the Khartoum Declaration
World Refugee Day, as proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly’s Resolution 55/76 on December 4, 2000, began as the Africa Refugee Day, a 1975 initiative of the Organization of African Unity (OAU, now the African Union). A 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa had previously extended the protection offered by the Geneva Convention to individuals fleeing acts of external aggression at a time when refugees from Africa accounted for nearly 35% of the worldwide refugee population. Even then, barely a decade after the end of widespread colonialism, forced migration was increasing at an alarming rate, turning into a full-blown crisis by 1990. Forced into taking action, the OAU adopted the Khartoum Declaration on Africa’s Refugee Crisis to lay the blueprint for sustainable refugee resettlement solutions. The following decade would see the establishment of Kenya, Tanzania, Ivory Coast, Libya, Egypt and South Africa - now host to the largest asylum seekers population - as major host countries. Fortunately, the end of conflict in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola, Rwanda and Burundi marked the beginning of cautious optimism, as voluntary return in these countries alleviated the burden of caring for thousands of forcibly displaced persons.
However, with the ongoing situation North Africa, ongoing conflicts in the DRC, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan and the Central African Republic, the UNHCR puts the number of registered refugees worldwide in 2010 at a staggering 15.4 million, 1 million more than in 2009, with more than 2.1 million in Africa alone. The organisation also reports that the number of refugees returning home has dropped to its lowest in 20 years.
The paradigm of refugee hosting/producing countries
In an extraordinary reversal, formerly war-torn countries including Burundi are now admitting refugees from states like the DRC, which itself has many nationals to Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya. Conversely, countries like Ivory Coast and Libya, previously known as havens for refugees, have become unsafe territories for both nationals and former asylum seekers. Over 200,000 Ivorians have fled recent political unrest to neighboring countries, according to a UN Humanitarian Situation Report. This includes former war-torn Liberia, where they live precariously among the Liberian returnees they once hosted. A Médecins Sans Frontières report claims that some 800,000 refugees left Libya for Egypt, Tunisia and Niger. And more than half of these are non-Libyans who themselves fled persecution in places like Uganda, Chad, or Sudan decades earlier.
Further underlining the cyclical nature of African refugee migration, the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings led to an increase in the number of countries that simultaneously host and produce refugees. Egypt has long played host to forced migrants from Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea among many others, yet has seen a sudden outpouring of its citizens into Libya, then into Europe once NATO bombings began. Egyptian migrant workers who had gone to Libya years ago are now fleeing the country, forced to return to their now unstable homeland. As for Tunisia, where the influx of Libyan refugees has reached unmanageable proportions, throngs of Tunisian nationals have set sail for the Italian coast, sparking an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
Is protection against forcible return obsolete?
The mass exodus of Tunisian and Libyan refugees toward Mediterranean Europe, and France and Italy’s responses to the crisis poses a question: is the protective status of refugees slowly eroding? The protection against forcible return, or non-refoulement, as stated in Article 33(1) of the Geneva Convention, has been an intrinsic part of international law that both signatory and non-signatory states are required to respect. However, anti-immigrant sentiment and a crippling global economic crisis may be prompting industrialised countries to enact more stringent policies on refugee admission. This creates the potential for an already dire situation to intensify. These trends mean that the 2011 World Refugee Day theme of ‘One Refugee Without Hope is Too Many’ risks falling on deaf ears.