On World Refugee Day: What lessons we can learn from Africa

Refugee Compact Report Infographic from Center for Global Development.

Today, low- and middle-income countries host a majority of the world’s refugees. The reality of refugees striving to rebuild their lives alongside host communities can fuel divisive politics, and the strain of refugee flows can threaten hard-won development gains. Despite the political turmoil precipitated by forced displacement, this is an eminently manageable challenge for the global community.

On June 20, 2017, the World Bank Africa Region organized a debate and photo journalism exhibit, to shine a light on the impact of forced displacement in Sub-Saharan Africa. “Faces of Resilience”: the photo journalism exhibit featured the work of Dorte Verner, award-winning photographer and World Bank Lead Economist. Dorte Verner recently travelled to Uganda, Kenya and Niger —three countries hosting a massive number of refugees and IDPs with very limited resources— to document, through photographs and narratives, the challenges faced by refugees and host communities with a focus on resilience and food security.

This World Refugee Day event highlighted the plight of African communities affected by forced displacement. The program took a provocative approach and look at refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) as economic actors —rather than victims. The debate, moderated by Yinka Adegoke, Africa editor for Quartz, focused on what the world can learn from Africa’s approach to forced displacement. High profile speakers, former refugees and development experts discussed lessons learned from Africa, talked about changing mindsets about refugees and IDPs, and challenged current development approaches to displacement.

While the world has its eyes fixed on the heartbreaking refugee crisis resulting from conflict in the Middle East, a number of African countries have long struggled to cope with the challenges of hosting long-term refugees— among them include Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. The plight of these refugees and IDPs in Africa—displaced within their own country—can no longer be ignored. The reality is that the great majority of African refugee movements happen within Africa, with the burden of caring for these migrants falling on neighboring countries. Although Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) also hosts refugees from other regions, the number of refugees originating from SSA follows closely those hosted in the region, suggesting that most SSA refugees remain in countries within the region.

The world has a lot to learn from Africa. First, Africa has made more progress than any other continent in developing some of the most progressive legal frameworks around forced displacement. The “African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa” (better known as the Kampala convention), which came into effect in 2012, is considered a landmark for human rights. Second, at the country level, select governments have recognized that the most effective way to deal with refugees is to allow them to participate in the local economy. Tanzania, for instance, has granted citizenship to 200,000 refugees, giving them access to land rights and allowing them to participate in the political life. They have the right to work and start their own businesses, an approach hailed by the UN as a “pioneering approach that enhances social cohesion.” Third, at the regional level, African countries are beginning to collaborate and share their respective approaches to improve the living conditions of the refugees. The reason is simple: as soon as refugees cross borders, this becomes a regional issue.

Burundian refugees gather on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in western Tanzania, as they wait for transportation to Kigoma township (May 2015) (Photo: Gallo Images/Reuters/Thomas Nukoya)

What does it teach us? For development partners or humanitarian agencies, recognizing the need to focus on host communities, often located in poor and marginalized areas, may be the way forward. We should take the opportunity of the refugee crisis in the European Union to question more deeply the current development and protection system. We should help developing countries that are hosting the overwhelming majority of refugees to make it an opportunity for development, as evidence shows that with proper policies in place, refugees can be an asset in the search for sustainable solutions to long-term refugee and IDP situations.

Staying true to the objective of the Sustainable Development Goals to “leave no one behind” and realizing the commitments made at the May 2016 World Humanitarian Summit will require a new, better way forward. It will take a recognition of the collective outcomes we aim to achieve, new ways of working, and greater responsibility-sharing among a broader set of actors. A development approach to displacement must be put in place to ensure that the displaced, including the youth among them, can lead productive lives outside the camps.

It’s time to think outside the box. It’s time to pilot and scale innovative models for bringing together donors, development and humanitarian agencies, the private sector, and civil society under host-country leadership to achieve sustainable outcomes for refugees and host communities. Africa’s experience in addressing this challenge can help guide the formulation of global approaches.


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About the Author
Mariel Kanene is Founder and Editor of TheArtOfPersptive.co and lead storyteller with a focus on people, place and purpose. His passion for storytelling was born in Kinshasa, Congo, groomed in Dallas, Texas, and cultivated in Washington, DC. Mariel now resides in Los Angeles, CA. By day, Mariel spends his days slowly trying to change the world—one meaningful interaction at a time. When Mariel is not in the office, he spends his free time in athletic pursuits from weightlifting to yoga, swimming, and the ocassional boxing class.  He loves good conversations over good coffee and even better rum. He hates talking about himself in third person. Thanks for stopping by. Always appreciated. Twitter | Instagram | Linkedin .

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