This article first appeared in ‘Global Dialogue’, an international affairs review of the Foundation for Global Dialogue, in Volume 4 (1 April 1999).

Origin and scope

Nineteen ninety-nine marks the thirtieth anniversary of the adoption of the Organisation of African Unity’s (OAU) 1969 Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. This Convention was an explicit recognition by African states of the nature and scope of modern refugee movements in Africa. The Convention marked a departure from the then internationally accepted standards for the extension of state protection to persons forcibly displaced across international boundaries. At the time the 1951 UN Convention (and its 1967 Protocol) recognised persons as refugees [who had suffered what was primarily individualised persecution for reasons of political opinion, religion, race or analogous reasons].

The OAU, by expanding this definition to persons forced to cross national boundaries because of ‘external aggression, occupation, foreign domination and events seriously disturbing public order in either part or the whole of their countries of origin or nationality’, was signaling a recognition of the nature and scope of modern refugee movements on the continent. It was also indicating willingness on the part of post- independent states to take responsibility for the protection of persons forcibly displaced under these circumstances.

Many have described the period in which the Convention was passed as that of the ‘open door policy’ of African states. This lasted from the early 1960s to the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The past decade has seen significant changes in the loci of refugee movements in central and southern Africa. Following decolonisation, the central African states of Rwanda and Burundi witnessed political conflicts in the 1960s and 1970s, which generated hundreds of thousands of refugees. For the most part these refugees received meaningful asylum in neighbouring countries.

As recently as a decade ago countries such as South Africa, Angola, Mozambique and even Namibia remained primary source countries for refugees. Several million Mozambicans, fleeing a civil war that devastated their country, were hosted by virtually every neighbouring country. Malawi alone hosted over a million Mozambican refugees at one stage, notwithstanding a national population estimated at a little over 8 million. South Africans found refuge not only in immediate neighbouring countries, but also in African states, which included Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia and others further afield.

Many South Africans who had sought initial asylum in nearer countries such as Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland were eventually relocated to and welcomed in countries further afield following intense military and economic pressure exerted on neighbouring, hosting countries by the South African state. Common to all the South African conflicts that have caused large-scale forced migration was the involvement of colonial or racist governments.

With the transition to democracy in South Africa, the 1990s have witnessed far-reaching changes in refugee movements in southern Africa. Many southern African states remain fragile emerging democracies, with the continuing insecurity, which this entails. For example, in September 1998 short but intense disturbances in Lesotho drove about 1000 people to seek refuge in neighbouring South Africa until order was restored. Similarly, about 1000 Namibians advocating the cessation of the Caprivi crossed into Botswana beginning October 1998. However, large-scale refugee movements typical up to the eighties have all but ceased with the significant exception of Angola.

The resumption of full-scale civil war in Angola in the latter half of 1998 not only halted the repatriation of Angolans from neighbouring states, which was underway, but saw fresh movements out of that country. In December 1998 the United Nations estimated that about 330 000 Angolans were internally displaced and had registered 255 000 as refugees primarily in Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Congo-Brazzaville and Namibia. The number of monthly registrations of new Angolan refugees steadily increased from July 1998.

While Angola stood out as an exception to trends in southern Africa, it was more closely linked to developments in the Great Lakes region of central Africa. Continuing insecurity in this region was responsible for large scale and volatile mass movements of refugees across borders. The roots of the Great Lakes crisis may be traced back over decades. However, in 1993 the murder of Burundi’s first democratically elected president led to the flight of some 700 000 Hutus into Rwanda, Tanzania and Zaire to escape army-led revenge killings. Thereafter events in the region unfolded in rapid and startling succession. By April of 1994 Rwanda lay witness to the human catastrophe of a large-scale organised genocide. Perpetrators of the genocide soon fled alongside innocent civilians into Tanzania and Zaire leading to not only the largest and fastest movement of refugees in modern history, but also one of the most complex movements.

Well over two million persons fled Rwanda in the months after the genocide.

Regional insecurity, exacerbated by the sheer magnitude of the refugee problem, deepened as international organisations and host governments were unable to institute many of the fundamental principles of international refugee law in the huge refugee settlements. In many of the camps influence and control was maintained by Interahamwe and the former Rwandan army members responsible for the genocide. Civilians in the camps were held hostage as human shields against attempts to separate the genociders from the true refugees. Meanwhile, the camps, perilously close to the Rwandan border were increasingly used as bases to launch raids back into Rwanda by these same forces.

These widening conflicts led to refugee movements throughout the region, which receiving states were increasingly reluctant to host.

Impact of refugees

The instability caused by the magnitude and nature of refugee populations in the Great Lakes region played a major role in a complex of regional interventions, which precipitated first the overthrow of the Mobutu Sese Seko regime and eventually the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Even if the hosting of refugees does not pose a direct threat to the security of the country of origin, it often sees this as a hostile act, which can lead to deteriorating interstate relations. Since the ideological differences which existed between states in the 1960s and 1970s have largely evaporated, hosting states today are much more sensitive to the damage to relations with neighbouring countries caused by the hosting of refugees.

There are a number of domestic concerns for countries that host refugees. The first of these is internal security. Many refugees come from situations of civil war and bring their weapons with them. These are then used by some for crimes, which include armed robbery and poaching. Large influxes can also place serious strains on the environment and social infrastructure. These problems become more severe where burden sharing through international assistance is (or becomes) limited. For example, it was the lack of sustained cooperation from the international community that contributed in large part to Tanzania’s drastic decision to close its borders at a point during the Great Lakes crisis.

Much of southern Africa has not experienced the volatile and destabilising mass influx of refugees which has characterised central Africa for several years. The early 1990s in fact saw significant reductions in the number of refugees hosted in the region, especially with the organised return of Mozambicans at the end of the civil war in that country.

At the same time many South Africans returned from even further abroad. Angola remained the exception to increasing regional stability. Notwithstanding the relative decline in mass influx of refugees, there continued to be flows of asylum-seekers and increasingly refugees became an urban phenomenon within the region. The impact of these movements was particularly felt in South Africa whose selective and largely restrictive immigration controls had extended to refugee movements prior to 1993.

During the 1990s, the number of refugees arriving in South Africa has been relatively low compared to other countries in the region. For example, since the opening of asylum procedures after 1993 and until December 1998, only 51 775 applications for asylum have been lodged in South Africa. Crossings into Tanzania from the South Kivu region alone, however, totaled almost 30 000 from early August 1998 to end January 1999.

But refugees in South Africa have had a striking impact on the social fabric of society for a variety of reasons. These include the concentration of refugees in already densely populated urban areas where, without assistance from international or national agencies, they are forced to compete for scarce jobs with nationals. Interestingly, the shift towards urban refugees, which has marked the recent experience in much of southern Africa, is also experienced in traditional countries of asylum in the sub-region such as Kenya and Tanzania. Protection policies adopted by Kenya and Tanzania in the 1960s and 1970s were aimed at refugees of primarily rural origin who were accommodated in camps and designated certain settlement areas. In 1996 the Kenyan government ordered all urban refugees to relocate to rural refugee camps, and enforced this order with regular police sweeps. Urban refugees have therefore increasingly chosen to live clandestinely in cities. The number of Burundi refugees alone living clandestinely in Dar-Es-Salaam have been estimated at 20 000 in 1994. In such situations refugees live on the margins of society and are largely incapable of either leading productive lives or contributing to their host societies in any meaningful way.

The attitude of host countries

Over the past decade host countries in Africa have increasingly retreated from applying the basic principles of asylum. They have closed borders to refugees; forced undignified and unsafe repatriations, increasingly insisted on short-term asylum regardless of the conditions in the countries of origin and failed to provide security in refugee camps. This has been accompanied by a general diminishing of the rights guaranteed to refugees under the various relevant international conventions. This retreat has been marked in the Great Lakes region where governments have been faced with huge refugee movements, a lack of international or interregional support and the added problem of armed combatants mixing with civilian refugee populations.

Another significant factor in this retreat has been increasing xenophobia within host countries. Much has been made of this phenomenon in South Africa, particularly after the mob killing of three Senegalese asylum-seekers on a crowded commuter train in September 1998. However, xenophobia is by no means a phenomenon unique to South Africa. It has, over the last decade, increasingly become a factor constraining many governments in their development and implementation of refugee policy.

The xenophobic reaction to the arrival of refugees can in part be explained by the changing nature of regional conflicts. As earlier mentioned, hosting populations as well as governments no longer see refugees as the product of colonial or racially motivated conflicts. The sense of solidarity, which was present during earlier conflicts, no longer remains. In addition, economic decline and measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have resulted in severely restricted access to social services for the populations of many countries. Under such conditions the added burden of hosting refugees is increasingly being challenged by local populations.

With the increasing democratisation of countries, host governments are also more sensitive to negative public reactions to the presence of foreigners, including refugees and the pressure from local populations to implement domestic programs in favour of rather than giving assistance to ‘foreigners.’

Another important factor in the changing attitudes of host countries in southern and Central Africa has been the ripple effect created by the emerging policies of refusing entry to refugees in Western and Northern states. The abdication of their responsibility and commitment to international burden sharing has led Southern states, who have far fewer resources at their disposal, to question their own commitments.

Possible solutions to the crisis

The refugee crisis needs to be addressed at both a regional and international level. Regional groupings such as the Southern African Development Community (SADC) will need to increasingly address the root causes of refugee movements. According to Bonaventure Rutinwa, this would entail a ‘political and economic agenda aimed at eliminating ethnic strife and conflict; curtailing the arms trade; establishing a firm foundation for democratic institutions and governance; respect for human rights; and the promotion of economic development and social progress’.

Neither the ongoing multi-state conflict in the DRC nor the recent resumption of hostilities in Angola indicate that the region is moving towards these goals, despite the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between SADC and the UNHCR in July 1996, which recognised the importance of establishing and developing ‘mechanisms for managing and addressing the root causes of the movements’.

Domestic initiatives will also be necessary in the quest to find more meaningful and durable solutions to problems relating to refugee movements. The Memorandum recognises the importance of such initiatives, especially creating public awareness and increasing involvement from domestic civil society organisations. Initiatives of this nature have recently been undertaken in South Africa. A National Consortium on Refugee Affairs has been established, bringing together a variety of role players concerned with the plight of refugees, and the South African Human Rights Commission launched a National Action Plan to Combat Xenophobia in December 1998.

Finally, meaningful solutions to the refugee problem should include initiatives aimed at enhancing international burden-sharing both in emergencies, but also to provide assistance to ameliorate the environmental and other long-term impacts experienced by countries hosting large refugee populations.

James Schneider was previously the Refugee Rights Project Coordinator at Lawyers for Human Rights and is currently an independent consultant. He regularly participates in the South African National Consortium of Refugee Affairs.

The FGD has developed five scenarios for southern Africa, which are to be launched on Africa day on 25 May 1999. The movement of people in the region is a major variable that will impact on the future of southern Africa, especially in a scenario of escalating conflict. The SADC Guide, which the Foundation is preparing, will also address this issue. Also see FGD Occasional Paper No 7, The migrant challenge to realpolitik – towards a human rights-based immigration policy in South and southern Africa FGD Occasional Paper No 8, The state of migration research in South Africa.

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2 Responses to The refugee crisis in southern and central Africa

  1. fiona macleod says:

    What attitude questionnaires did you use in your research?

  2. Arnold says:

    Do you think the principle of non-refoulment undermines state security?

    Do you think there is a need to have a provision under article 33 (2) to allow an exception in instances of mass influxes ? (it only provides for a requirement of assessment of each individual case)

    is there an emerging customary norm with regard to violation of the principle of non-refoulment?

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