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OXFAM: We Cannot Ignore Chronic Displacement in Africa

As the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants opens this morning, Oxfam’s Attila Kulcsar notes that the African continent’s chronic internal displacement must not be overlooked.

Written by Attila Kulcsar Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A woman carries kitchen utensils at an IDP camp in Kindjandi, Diffa region, Niger. She is ready to leave the camp for lack of aid. Vincent Tremeau/Oxfam

Amid all the international noise and clamor leading to the first-ever United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants today in New York, there has been a relative silence about Africa. This is troubling.

Several African countries have openly welcomed refugees and migrants across borders and into their communities. Uganda, for example, currently hosts more than half a million refugees and asylum seekers and has guaranteed them rights – as any country should do – to work, establish businesses, attend school, move freely and own property.

Many countries in Africa have a long and intensely involved experience of dealing with people forced to flee their homes, who often have to move across borders. In New York this week the world stands to miss out on the chance not only to lend more support to Africa but also to learn concrete lessons from its experience.

For Africa, the refugee and migrant phenomenon continues today in numbers that dwarf those in many other regions that attract far more publicity and attention. African Union countries host more than one-quarter of the world’s 24.5 million refugees and asylum seekers, despite making up just 2.9 percent of the world’s economy. Larger still is the number of “internally displaced people” forced to flee within their countries’ borders.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to almost 30 percent of the 41 million people who are now “internally displaced” by conflict and violence around the world. This number has hardly budged over the last decade. The U.N. has declared that the number of people who have fled South Sudan for neighboring countries had just topped 1 million.

All this underscores the chronic nature of displacement in the region, particularly with the mutating nature of conflict and insecurity in the Central African Republic and South Sudan, the seven-year violence originating in Nigeria that has spread across borders into Niger, Chad and Cameroon, and new conflicts in Burundi, Libya and Mali.

Africa’s displacement problems are not only vast but also protracted. Fifteen African countries are today hosting people who have been internally displaced from their homes for more than five years. There are refugee camps in Africa in which people have been born and have lived their entire lives.

And it is repetitive. Many people are forced to move from place to place in search of security and a better livelihood. Often, they end up leaving one volatile and violent place only to arrive in another.

Despite all this, the issue of internally displaced people will be largely ignored at the U.N. summit this week. This is little short of scandalous.

Africa is in search of durable solutions. People who want to return to their homelands need jobs and farming opportunities – and, in particular, access to land. However, all this becomes harder to find the longer displacement lasts. The aid sector is determined to integrate displacement into long-term developmental programs, but this has yet to translate into changes in the way aid is delivered on the ground.

Water bottles are laid in a line in the Sayam refugee camp, Niger. Sayam houses about 4,000 people in a remote area far from any facilities. Although there is no fence, the army patrols the area. Vincent Tremeau/Oxfam

Water bottles are laid in a line in the Sayam refugee camp, Niger. Sayam houses about 4,000 people in a remote area far from any facilities. Although there is no fence, the army patrols the area. Vincent Tremeau/Oxfam

The U.N. summit will not begin to get to grips with these huge issues facing Africa. The international response to support people who have been internally displaced is inadequate and not properly coordinated from international, regional and local levels. Communities are not being properly supported to improve their resilience to shocks.

This summit should have given special attention to Africa and its unique context and experiences in dealing with internally displaced persons and refugees. It is from Africa that the world can understand that the longer displacement lasts, the more difficult it is for families to access jobs, land, restitution and security. This robs them of their rights.

There is still time for governments to rectify this – there always is. But for the moment, these summits risk being no more than a half-hearted beginning to help the millions of people who have been forced to flee.

They must instead come together to back a more humane and coordinated approach to migration. It is time for a more effective international response based on shared responsibilities.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.


“The Road to UNGA” explores the most pertinent conversations that ought to happen ahead of the first ever U.N. Summit on Refugees and Migrants, which will take place on September 19–20 in New York.

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