African Press International (API)

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Africa at large: Internal refugees deserve rights (opinion)

Posted by African Press International on August 25, 2008

Nairobi (Kenya) – The May xenophobic violence in South Africa, which left over 30,000 people displaced, posed a new challenge for the Africa Union (AU) in its quest to tackle the problem of refugees and internally displaced people in the continent.

The carnage took place when the AU was revising the Organization of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (1969) and drafting an Internally Displaced Persons Convention.

The revised AU refugees convention is intended to assist the continental body to grapple with the huge numbers of displaced people who, according to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, remain arguably the most significant humanitarian challenge that we face.

To improve refugee security, the continental body needs to revive the spirit and letter of the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention by utilising the existing legal and institutional regional framework to act on human rights crises as they unfold.

Noting the huge numbers of internal refugees in the continent, in 2006 the AU embarked on drafting a Convention on the Prevention of Internal Displacement and the Protection of and Assistance to Internally Displaced Persons in Africa.

Unlike refugees, who fall under the protection of international instruments such as the AU and UN refugee conventions together with the specialist agency UN High Commissioner for Refugees UNHCR) to assist them, there are no comparable standards or mechanisms to safeguard the rights of internal refugees.

Their own state is often unable or unwilling to assist and protect them. Likewise, the international community is often powerless or unwilling to intervene. To date a draft text has been discussed among a group of experts drawn from AU member states and representatives of various UN agencies.

The adoption of a legally-binding Convention on internal refugees will send an important signal to the rest of the world about the seriousness with which Africa considers the issue. In 2007, the UNHCR recorded 11.4 million refugees under its care, up from 9.9 million the previous year. This was the second consecutive year that the number of refugees had steadily increased. Sudan with 523,000 refugees and Somalia (457,000) recorded the highest figures in the continent.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre of the Norwegian Refugee Council, the estimated number of internal refugees passed the 26 million mark in 2007 the highest figure since the early 1990s.

As in previous years, Africa was particularly hard hit. The continent hosted almost half of the global internal refugees population (12.7 million people) spread across 20 African countries. Sudan had the highest number of internal refugees (5.8 million) and generated nearly one in every two of the new displacements (1.6 million).

Somalia and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were the worst affected by new internal displacements in 2007. In Somalia the violence that engulfed the capital Mogadishu and other parts of the country after the Ethiopian invasion in December 2006 displaced some 600,000 people.

In the DRC, fighting between ethnic Tutsi rebels and the government army has uprooted an estimated 500,000 people in the east of the country.

Against this background, there is urgency to review the IDP and refugee resettlement procedures in the continent.

Drafted in the aftermath of anti-colonial struggles, the OAU Refugee Convention has been globally acknowledged as a land-mark contribution to the international refugee protection regimes through its broadening of the refugee definition in response to Africas needs. It was a radical affirmation and expansion of the refugee definition contained in the 1959 UN refugee convention and its 1967 Protocol.

The OAU Refugee Convention allows for the group-based determination of refugee status. In addition, it expands the definition of refugee by stating that external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole country of origin or nationality of a person are a basis for claiming refugee status. This means that large groups of refugees fleeing mass human rights violations or generalised violence can be given protection on the strength of their nationality or their membership of a particular ethnic group.

Historically, the response of most African countries and communities towards the displaced has been generous, reflecting long-standing ethnic, political and cultural links between refugees and host populations. However, in recent years, the tremendous stress on the institution of refugee protection in Africa has eroded this hospitality. The large number of refugees in countries already experiencing remarkable social and economic hardships has brought into question the very capacity of African nations to cope with refugees.

* Patrick Mutahi works with Eastern and Horn of Africa Programme, Africa Policy Institute (Nairobi). Africa Insight is an initiative of the Nation Media Groups Africa Media Network Project.


API/Source.Daily Nation (Kenya), by Patrick Mutahi

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