East Africa refugee crisis: We need more action, less rhetoric on responsibility sharing

by Victor Odero | International Rescue Committee (IRC)
Thursday, 17 August 2017 09:42 GMT

South Sudan refugees family arrives at the UNHCR managed refugees reception point at Elegu, within Amuru district of the northern region near the South Sudan-Uganda border, August 20, 2016. REUTERS/James Akena

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Despite commitments, international response is floundering and the needs continue to grow

Last year world leaders made two crucial decisions on refugees: wealthy nations promised to increase by 30 percent humanitarian aid and double resettlement commitments globally if low and middle income countries  provided greater legal protections and access for refugees to jobs, education and other essential services. The leaders also agreed to establish a Global Refugee Compact by 2018 – which aims to outline a plan for more equitable sharing of responsibility for hosting and supporting refugees. Despite these visible and well-publicized commitments, the international response is floundering and the needs continue to grow among refugees and the communities that are hosting them in East Africa.

Countries in East Africa are in the midst of an exceptional refugee crisis. There has been a sharp increase in the number of refugees from within and outside the region—nearly 2 million more than just one year ago. Today there are 4.4 million refugees scattered across the region due to armed conflict and insecurity in South Sudan, Burundi, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic. The heart-wrenching fact is that majority of these refugees are unlikely to return home soon - across Africa refugees are displaced for 17 years on average.

Since early 2017 when famine was declared in parts of South Sudan, there is increasing attention to the rampant food insecurity and malnutrition throughout region, but let’s be clear the situation in East Africa is not just about food shortage but also a full blown displacement crisis. The causes and consequences of displacement in the region are complex and multi-layered as are the needs of those displaced. The sheer scale of displacement and how quickly it has escalated is staggering. Recent refugee influxes have occurred in six countries—Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan and Tanzania.  Uganda, the largest recipient, has accepted close to one million South Sudanese refugees over the last year—that’s roughly 3,000 new refugees every day.

Conflicts in East Africa can burn for decades, the protracted crisis in Somalia is a key example. Life-saving assistance to refugees, such as emergency food, water and medical aid, is vital, but it is not enough to address the longer-term challenges of displacement. Refugees do not want to become dependent on aid, they want to be self-reliant and they need education, jobs, bank accounts, and health care to do this.

But, too many countries in the region and around the world have policies in place that inhibit refugees’ rights to move freely, find safe and gainful employment, and own property. Such policies are trapping large refugee populations in situations where they become wholly dependent on humanitarian aid for survival. Strict policies that require refugees to reside in designated camps, such as those in Kenya and Tanzania, are depriving refugees of opportunities to become self-reliant and meaningfully contribute to their new communities. This has led to many adverse social and economic outcomes for both refugees and the communities that host them, and in turn fostered perceptions that refugees are solely a burden—when we know that’s not the case.

There is also the recurring challenge of insufficient financial support to cover the costs associated with hosting refugees. Uganda has in place a very open policy for refugees, including the right to work and reside anywhere in the country, with the intent of promoting self-reliance. Part of their forward-thinking policy also includes the ambition to promote an integrated and comprehensive approach to supporting refugees and the communities that are hosting them – fostering the longer-term development needs of both refugees and hosting communities. In June, the Government of Uganda and the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, convened the Uganda Solidarity Summit in Kampala with the goal of raising USD 2 billion to support Africa’s largest refugee influx. The conference seemed poised for success: the humanitarian situation of refugees in northern Uganda is dire; capacities of humanitarian agencies are over-stretched; and, social services are on the verge of collapsing. Uganda put forth a clear path for how, with additional financing, it can overcome these obstacles by injecting resources into social services and infrastructure that benefits both the refugees and local communities. Yet, despite significant turnout of international leaders, including the United Nations Secretary General, the conference fell far short of its fundraising target, raising less than a quarter of much-needed funding.

With such glaring gaps and acute humanitarian needs, the longer term development needs of refugees (and the communities that host them) inevitably take a back seat. East Africa is comprised of developing countries and one recently-named middle income country (Kenya) which, in the best of times, are still reliant on international development assistance for their own economic growth. Key examples include Uganda and Tanzania, which require long-term development assistance, even without considering the financial responsibilities associated with caring for their large numbers of refugees; however, what is becoming increasingly clear is that the current development assistance modalities are not yet fit for the purpose of supporting refugees.

World leaders need to urgently deliver on their commitments to host countries in East Africa. It is also incumbent on United Nations member states to develop a framework for sharing the responsibilities associated with hosting refugees and that encourages development, both for refugees and the communities that host them. The UNHCR is leading a process to create this Global Refugee Compact, and this is a chance to change the game. But the Compact must lay out, concretely, how to plan for long-term solutions for refugees and their hosts; how to remove obstacles and policies that impede refugee self-reliance; and how to match financing with both immediate and long-term needs. The Compact will, of course not solve every problem, but it will miss the mark if it fails to address these critical areas —and leave refugees’ lives hanging in the balance.

Victor Odero is a lawyer and IRC's Advocacy Coordinator for the Horn and East Africa region based in Nairobi, Kenya. His work focuses on legal and policy reforms to bring solutions to refugees who are caught up in protracted displacement.