Fifty years after the Organization of African Unity Convention on Refugees and 10 years after the Kampala Convention on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), Africa faces a crisis of forced displacement on an unprecedented scale. “The magnitude of displacement throughout Africa is staggering,” said Carol Thompson, the acting assistant secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration at the State Department, while speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace last week. Amid Africa Day celebrations, African ambassadors and representatives from the U.N. and the U.S. government convened at USIP—in partnership with the African Ambassadors Group and the Wilson Center—to discuss how to manage the current crisis and find comprehensive, durable solutions.
According to the U.N., 25 million Africans have been forcibly displaced, including 6.3 million refugees and 14.5 million IDPs. In last two years alone, there have been five million displaced, leading the African Union to designate 2019 the year of the refugee, IDP, and returnee.
Not only is the number of displaced persons increasing, so is the amount of time they’re spending displaced. “An entire generation of youth have become adults having only known life in a refugee camp,” said Congresswoman Karen Bass.
Administering basic aid such as food, water, and medical care—while necessary—will not be enough to meet this growing challenge. When possible, host communities should work to provide displaced persons the opportunity for meaningful integration into society and the opportunity to rebuild if they return home.
The Ugandan Model
Since 1959, Uganda’s system for handling displaced persons has been centered around creating opportunity. Moving beyond providing basic necessities, Uganda gives refugees freedom of mobility, access to jobs and education, and plots of lands to farm their own food. The goal is not to simply provide for displaced persons, but to give them skills to integrate into society. As Ugandan Ambassador to the U.S. Mull Ssebujja Katende said, “When you go to a refugee camp [in Uganda], you don’t know you are in a refugee camp.”
“Actually, what we call the ‘Ugandan model’ is really an African model. In Africa, when people are distressed, they are brothers … [and] sisters,” said the ambassador.
Tanzanian Ambassador Wilson Mutagaywa Kajumula Masilingi said that this approach was also followed by his country, where refugees and displaced persons can own land and move freely. Tanzania also gives refugees the option to naturalize, providing them a path toward a permanent home should they choose not to return to their former country.
The model alleviates the pressure on the state to provide assistance in perpetuity, according to the two ambassadors. If you create opportunities for displaced persons, they can contribute to society rather than remaining reliant on aid.
U.N. Goodwill Ambassador Ger Duany, a former South Sudanese refugee, said the Ugandan model could be improved by not only educating young refugees, but by creating a system where they learn how to become self-sustaining. “In order for me to be sitting here with you guys, it’s because I was given an opportunity somehow, somewhere, by somebody I don’t even know,” said Duany.
The designation of refugee or IDP can often further alienate the displaced. While refugee status can provide displaced persons with much needed rights and resources, the label can often create arbitrary distinctions—for example, based on borders alone some people are refugees and others not.
“In Tanzania, we don’t believe in refugees, because it is foreign to us … Why call a brother and a sister a refugee? When they are moving away from trouble and you are hosting him, it’s a moral duty,” said Ambassador Masilingi. Rwandan Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana—once a refugee herself—echoed the sentiment, saying, “The best thing would be to remove any stamp of being a refugee, because this is artificial.”
And these distinctions can have a real-world impact on how displacement is managed. IDPs have fewer and contested rights under international conventions, as they still remain within their own nation’s borders. Whether due to internal conflict or disaster, some countries are often responsible for displacement in the first place and the stress of handling displaced persons can complicate an already fraught situation.
For decades, this haziness left a gap in both resources and logistical mechanisms for handling IDPs. The African Union’s 2009 Kampala Convention sought to fill this gap. The agreement asked signatory countries to accept responsibility for their own IDPs, with accountability measures and parameters for incorporating regional and international assistance built into the new system.
The convention was ratified as IDPs, rather than convention-status refugees, became the disproportionate majority of displaced Africans—marking a necessary adaptation to the evolving crisis.
The initial results of Kampala have been mostly positive. Ambassador Masilingi stated his intention to expand the agreement beyond the African continent. And Ambassador Katende praised the agreement for its immediate impact, saying that Uganda applied the convention’s agreement to their treatment of IDPs and managed to resolve almost all of its internal displacement issues in the last decade.
Through its implementation, the Kampala convention offers the possibility of a lasting, cohesive system, with clear responsibilities and enforcement mechanisms, for handling the displacement crisis regardless of an individual’s official designation.
At its core, the displacement crisis has been driven by ongoing violent conflicts, weak economies, and bad governance. Without addressing these long-term issues, displacement will continue to challenge African countries. “Humanitarian aid is just a band aid on a very, very large wound … The solution is more than humanitarian aid, it’s segueing into development,” said UNHCR regional representative Matthew Reynolds.
Violent conflict is currently the main driver of displacement, responsible for 80 percent of all displaced persons worldwide. Calling out Uganda specifically, a South Sudanese human rights activist argued that intervention from regional actors can destabilize conflict zones and force people to flee. Ugandan Ambassador Katende refuted the claim, saying, “Nowhere do you find that one of the causes of your [South Sudan’s] conflict is Uganda.” Regardless of the actors responsible, quelling violent conflict in Africa remains one of the fundamental hurdles to a durable solution. To do so requires an effective mediation process.
Nigerien Ambassador to the U.S. Abdallah Wafy—whose nation was the first in Africa to adopt laws protecting displaced person—called for “African solutions for African problems,” citing the African Union as one of the best vehicles for establishing peace and security throughout the continent.
For how international actors fit into the solution, USIP President Nancy Lindborg highlighted the Task Force on Extremism in Fragile States. Convened by USIP at the request of Congress, the bipartisan task force combined prevention, humanitarian assistance, and development strategies to develop a comprehensive approach for addressing state fragility, which has been a major driver of Africa’s displacement and extremism crises. The magnitude of the crisis demands a new approach. “It’s forcing us to think differently about how we address these crises and the roots of these crises,” said Lindborg.
“We need all the partnerships we can get,” said Ambassador Mathilde Mukantabana. For Rwanda, international partnerships—to assist refugees, repatriate them and provide them with a pathway to citizenship—have been an integral part of the country’s development.
But, the most impactful way to address root causes of the displacement crisis is by improving governance. Tanzanian Ambassador Masilingi made clear that creating proper democratic institutions and protecting human rights would solve many problems once and for all.
When dealing with a crisis on this scale, it’s easy to lose sight of the human aspect. “You can’t do it alone. It’s an effort by everyone and has to have a dose of compassion for people,” said Ambassador Mukantabana.