Africa's Displaced Peoples: State-Building Realpolitik and Stunted Globalization

By Anthony, Constance G. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Africa's Displaced Peoples: State-Building Realpolitik and Stunted Globalization


Anthony, Constance G., Harvard International Review


As we move into the second decade of the twenty-first century, the extent of the refugee crisis in Africa has become more circumscribed, while the scope of internal displacement has grown. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNCHR) in 2007, there were just over 3 million refugees on the continent of Africa, about a quarter of the total global refugee population. The downward trend in the flight across borders began in 2001 and has not abated. In 2007, 2 million people were voluntarily repatriated to Burundi, Sudan, Liberia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Despite these very positive developments, does the decrease in refugees indicate a changing climate for Africa in respect to overall political stability and regional peace? The United Nations defines a refugee "as a person having a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality ... or political opinion," who flees their country of origin for the safety of neighboring states. In Africa today, the problem of forced migration for reasons of social, cultural or political persecution continues, but displaced populations are more often internally than externally relocated. There were 12.7 million internally displaced people (IDPs) on the African continent in 2007. Conflict and rebellion in the Sudan, Chad, Somalia, Zimbabwe, and the DRC continues to result in the displacement of millions. The extent of such forced population movements, whether internal or external, is a kind of canary in the mine shaft for those interested in the political and economic development of the continent.

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If there has been a change in the character of the twenty-first century refugee crisis on the African continent, the reference point for such change is the stability of the state. The reason for an increase in internal rather than external displacement is part of a costly form of internal war, pursued by the state as well as rebel groups and militias. This has emerged more widely on the African continent as a concomitant of the process of state building. It is further aggravated by an international environment of increased global interest and competition for the continent's natural resource wealth. Thus, while Africa has moved past an earlier refugee crisis rooted in colonial legacies and propelled by the Cold War, forced migration continues to haunt the continent's politics in some of its largest countries and potentially most productive economies.

There are probably many reasons why current conflicts result in an increase in IDPs and not refugees. Internally displaced populations in the Sudan, the DRC, and Zimbabwe which are forced to move because of war or military harassment may be absorbed in a larger territory in a way that was not the case in small West African countries in the 1990s. Getting to the other side of the border may also not take you out of harm's way, as is probably currently the case in Darfur. Or perhaps it is the not-as-liberal asylum policies of more stable states like Kenya and Tanzania, which over the course of many decades have hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees from nearby regional conflicts. The cost of their generosity is now" having an impact on their own internal security and stability. Past conflicts in Burundi, Rwanda, and the DRC have sent refugees into Tanzania since the first decade of its independence. Kenya absorbed refugees from conflicts in Uganda, the Sudan, and Somalia--the total number in Kenya was more than 400,000 at one point in the 1990s. Besides absorbing some social service cost, the movement of weapons into both countries has posed problems for the security of regions in which camps were placed and has increased the overall availability of small arms. In 2003, Tanzania's president publicly critiqued refugees for a national increase in crime and arms trade. Thus, in relatively stable states, refugees can also pose difficult political problems, because they may still carry political baggage from the conflicts they fled. …

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