Daring to Dream of an End to Exile in Sub-Saharan Africa

By Kamara, Marjon | Forced Migration Review, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Daring to Dream of an End to Exile in Sub-Saharan Africa


Kamara, Marjon, Forced Migration Review


Almost 98% of the refugees in Africa today could be considered as in protracted refugee situations. We need concerted efforts to draw as many as possible to a close.

People from eight nations are represented among the 2.3 million refugees in sub-Saharan Africa falling within UNHCR's definition of a protracted situation (that is, more than 25,000 refugees in exile for more than five years), namely: Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Eritrea, Liberia, Somalia and Sudan (Darfur and the South). While the focus on larger protracted refugee situations is warranted both by their numbers and the impact these populations have on their host communities, it is also important not to lose sight of the many small groups of refugees, or individual refugees, who remain in protracted situations in both rural and urban settings. This broader definition adds people from another 13 countries: Chad, Republic of Congo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Mauritania, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Togo and Uganda.

Since the 1960s, when UNHCR began working in sub-Saharan Africa, the dynamics of displacement and trends in refugee movements have evolved considerably. Initially, refugee flight was often the result of a liberation struggle. Later, civil conflicts became a major cause of flight. The numbers peaked in the mid-1990s when some seven million Africans were living in exile as refugees. Today half of the nationalities represented among the largest protracted refugee populations at that time no longer figure in the charts. Several more could soon drop off as well, as peace is consolidated and refugees find solutions.

Between 1993 and 2007 more than 9.2 million people across Africa were able to return to their country of origin. Decreases in total refugee populations are also a result of third country resettlement, with over 182,500 people resettled in the same period. Opportunities for local integration, on the other hand, which had been a solution for many refugees in the region in the 1980s, became negligible towards the end of the 20th century. Encouraging signs, however, indicate that settling permanently in their country of asylum is once again becoming an option for a considerable number of refugees.

Remaining refugees

Among smaller residual populations of refugees in protracted situations are groups and individuals, sometimes widely dispersed among several African countries, who took refuge outside their country of origin many years ago. Identifying appropriate solutions for them requires an understanding of their particular situations. Ghanaians who have been in Togo since the 1980s are already socially and economically integrated and other groups, such as Congolese in Gabon, are moving in this direction. For the Ethiopians who took refuge in Kenya in the early 1990s, resettlement has been the main option to date. On the other hand, Ethiopians who fled to Sudan may have the option of local integration, and a profiling exercise is currently underway to identify an appropriate solution for each individual. Repatriation also remains a possibility for others, such as the Namibians who have been in Botswana for over 10 years and the Mauritanians in Senegal since 1989.

Eritrean refugees in eastern Sudan have spent the greatest time in exile - some of them more than 40 years. In view of the limited prospects for voluntary repatriation, the focus is on self-reliance as a precursor to local integration, which is no longer a taboo. In Ethiopia, where there are just over 13,000 Eritrean refugees, large-scale resettlement is underway.

Solutions for Rwandan refugees have seemed the most elusive since many of those remaining in exile continue to reject the possibility of their return. Many of them are socially and economically integrated in their countries of asylum to varying degrees but, like others, remain dependent upon their refugee status for right of residence. …

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