What Africa can teach the world about refugees

Refugees in various countries are allowed to participate in the local economy

In Summary

• The world marked Refugee Day last month, calling for reflection on status of refugees

• Host governments are stretched but trends indicate the need for inclusive strategies

Of the total 18 million displaced persons in Africa, more than 12.5 million are internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in their own countries.
Of the total 18 million displaced persons in Africa, more than 12.5 million are internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in their own countries.

Twenty-five year old Fabrice Hakiza Bizimana woke up at the crack of dawn to prepare KDF,  a type of mandazi (deep-fried dough) a popular snack that sells to food kiosk owners in his neighbourhood.  Although it was a Sunday, Fabrice did not break with a routine he has perfected since he arrived in Nairobi three years ago. Fabrice is from Burundi and is one of the estimated 80,700 urban refugees living in Nairobi, Mombasa and other urban centres. He shares a one-room iron sheeting shack with two of his compatriots who are also refugees. For Fabrice, Angelo Hangenimana and Joseph Luvia Manirakiza—World Refugee Day, which was marked on Sunday 20th of June, was just another day for them.

Bizimana is one of the estimated 7,080 refugees from Burundi who have found sanctuary in Kenya. Majority of refugees and asylum seekers originate from Somalia (54%). Other major nationalities are South Sudanese (24.6%), Congolese (9%); Ethiopians (5.8%). Persons of concern from other nationalities including Sudan, Rwanda, Eritrea, Burundi, Uganda and others make up 6.8 % of the total population (508,033 as of the end of January 2021). Almost half of the refugees in Kenya (44%) reside in Dadaab, 40% in Kakuma and 16% in urban areas (mainly Nairobi), alongside 18,500 stateless persons. At the Dadaab camp in Kenya, the majority of refugees and asylum seekers are from Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Of the total 18 million displaced persons in Africa, more than 12.5 million are internally displaced persons (IDPs) living in their own countries. The majority of the IDPs and refugees forced to flee their homes are children and youth under the age of 18. Some refugee camps in Africa have been around for 40 years.

The majority of refugees in Africa are in the Horn of Africa and the East African region. Uganda has the largest number of refugees, nearly 1.4 million as of 2020. In Uganda, the majority of the refugees are from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burundi. An estimated 94% of the refugees live in settlements in northern and southwestern Uganda, while 6% reside in Kampala.

Kenya hosts over 500,000 long term refugees who have been living in camps established close to four decades ago. These refugees are mainly from Somalia, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Burundi and DRC.

Ghana hosts 13,000 refugees and asylum seekers mainly from people displaced by insecurity and war in Liberia,  Cote dÍvoire . In Nigeria, there are more than 2 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who  have fled their homes in the North East of Nigeria due to the Boko Haram insurgency, communal clashes and natural disasters. Nigeria also hosts over 71,000 refugees and asylum seekers from the neighbouring countries such as Cameroon, Niger, Chad, which have been drawn into the insurgency.

The plight of these refugees and IDPs in Africa—displaced within their own country or forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries—does not get as much attention unless in the context of sensational media reports that exaggerate the number of African migrants and asylum seekers making their way to Europe. 

The reality is that the majority of African refugee movements happen within Africa. Caring for these migrants falls on neighbouring countries which are hard pressed to provide services to their own citizens. Many of these governments struggle to meet the challenge of creating short and longer term livelihood opportunities for the displaced populations and their host communities.  have caused and continue to cause internal and external displacement of populations. By the end of 2020, some 940,421 Congolese refugees and asylum seekers were hosted across the African continent. The Congolese refugee population is now among the ten largest in the world. Nearly 55 per cent are children, many crossing borders unaccompanied or separated from their families.

Refugees hosted in Africa.
Refugees hosted in Africa.

Ongoing conflicts in eastern DRC, as well as intercommunal violence, continue to cause forced displacement within the DRC and into neighbouring countries, along with tragic loss of human life and destruction of communities. The situation in DRC means that refugees and asylum seekers will continue to leave the country as the insecurity continues and will require support.

This support ranges from livelihood opportunities for the displaced populations and their host communities, access to education, health services. While many of the counties of asylum continue to implement COVID-19 preventive measures necessary to curb the spread of the virus, refugees and asylum seekers are facing new barriers to food, work, education and social protection.

Food rations have been reduced impacting the health and food security of refugees and asylum seekers. In some instances, the food rations have been cut by at least 30 per cent. Humanitarian organisations such as World Food Programme, the UNHCR and others have also had to adapt and reformulate their programmes to ensure continuity of services and at the same time scale up their activities in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Approximately 93 percent of countries and territories worldwide implemented at least one social protection measure in response to COVID-19. According to the ILO. Many of these interventions focused on benefits for workers, costs of utilities, care and food packages for the poor and vulnerable people. However, displaced populations, including some 85 percent of the world’s refugees, are hosted primarily in countries where social protection system coverage is modest. These social protections had a short timeline leaving the recipients with no option but to find other ways of dealing with the impacts caused by the pandemic.

How refugees are hosted in Africa.
How refugees are hosted in Africa.

Displaced populations are generally more vulnerable to food insecurity and malnutrition. They often rely on food assistance and are more likely to have abandoned their jobs, possessions and social networks to find safety, often settling in displacement sites or urban areas with limited access to basic services. The extended closure of schools have revealed that girls are less likely to return to school. According to estimates by the Malala Fund, based on the number of refugee girls in secondary school in 10 countrie[2] , half of all girls may not return to school when classrooms reopen. Factors contributing to drop-outs include early marriage or girls taking on more domestic responsibility, with some even becoming breadwinners. Like many of the children in host communities, refugee children were unable and are still unable to resume lessons even though host governments have eased the restrictions.

The majority of the schools in refugee hosting communities lack basic hygiene items and facilities, such as handwashing stations and cleaning supplies. The significant investments needed in water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) infrastructures to minimize the risk of renewed or increased COVID cases and ensure safe learning spaces have not been made. A shortage of teachers, which pre-exists the pandemic, has made it difficult for the resumption of full time classes.

School feeding programmes which are equivalent to 10 percent of household income for poor and vulnerable families were suspended during the school closures. According to the World Food Programme, school meals are an obvious incentive for parents to keep sending their children to school, not to mention vital for families who rely on free school meals. However, national school feeding programmes often fail to include refugee children.

For many students, radio, and especially community radio, has become a lifeline for children to continue with their education. For example, at the Kakuma refugee camp in northern Kenya, the Ministry of Education through Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) encouraged the use of online learning platforms such as radio KBC (Kenya Broadcasting Corporation) and TV (Education TV) broadcasts which have been been used to reach out to the students whose education has been disrupted. Similar initiatives have been implemented in various refugee settlements in Uganda, Tanzania, Nigeria and Ghana. However, many of the learners in the refugee camps are not able to benefit from these initiatives due to lack of radio and television signals from the broadcasting radio and television. There is also limited access to radio and TVs.

The use of WhatsApp as an online learning platform while welcomed as a way to support continued learning has had challenges as not all parents have access to mobile phones. To meet the gaps  in education, some refugees have organised themselves and started schools for children in the refugee and host communities. Coburwas – a combination of Congo, Burundi, Uganda, Rwanda and Sudan, the countries of origin for many of the refugees in Kyangwali settlement camp in eestern Uganda a case in point. The school, ranked among the top four performing schools in Uganda, has 530 primary and secondary students. Forty of the students attend universities around the world and five of those who have earned their degrees have returned to work full time at the camp.

Access to higher education for refugees

While early childhood and primary education has been recognised as being important for the wellbeing and livelihood of all refugees, it is only in recent years that focus has shifted to providing refugees with access to higher education. Refugees and asylum seekers who have access to higher education are better placed to integrate in their host communities, develop skill sets that they can use for entry into the job market and provide them with the skills that can help in reconstruction of their countries if and when they choose to return. For the small percentage of refugees who are able to find settlement in third countries, having higher education makes it easier for them to integrate and find employment opportunities.

Currently, all camp-based schools follow the Kenyan curriculum and sit for Kenyan National Exams. Primary and secondary schools in the camps are headed by Principals registered by the Teacher Service Commission and all camp-based teaching personnel have also been trained on the Competency Based Curriculum. Incentive teachers (refugee teachers remunerated with incentive payments) receive online training from universities such as Kenyatta University and Masinde Muliro in their satellite campuses in Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps respectively. Refugee learners also participate in co-curricular activities and have been included in national scholarship programmes.

The UNHCR Education 2030 strategy aims to ensure that refugees are increasingly accounted for in education sector planning goals and action plans; that refugee and host community students are prepared equitably to succeed in national systems wherever they live; and that the particular learning needs of refugee and host community students are addressed by expanding existing programmes and partner investments in support of innovative local solutions. The goal is to increase refugee enrollment in higher education from the current 3% to 15% by 2030. The Refugee Scholarships Programme DAFI (Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative) offers qualified refugee and returnee students the possibility to earn an undergraduate degree in their country of asylum or home country.

COVID-related university, college and school closures, as well as disruptions in learning, has meant that the refugee students are unable to continue with their learning. The decision by many of the local and international universities providing tertiary learning to refugees to provide virtual lessons has placed many of the learners at a disadvantage as they do not have access to the infrastructure to undertake online lessons. African refugee students suffered from discrimination, worry of no studies, no income and some have even been thinking of suicide.  Concerns have also been raised not only about the method of delivery but also the suitability or practicality of the content being taught. “How can a refugee, whose basic needs are not being met, spend hours online discussing philosophies that bear no resemblance to their daily lives or learn to code with limited access to a computer that frequently doesn’t work?.”

Massive Open Online Courses provide free and high-quality education to individuals who are not able to attend  a traditional campus course. MOOCs are currently being used in Kenya and other refugee host countries and cover subjects such as business, engineering, computer science, and social science. However, limitations in internet connectivity, learning infrastructure and equipment such as computers, digital literacy and a permanent social insecurity for learners has seriously impacted the success of these interventions. Refugee and host community students who have little digital literacy or formal education do not have access to real people who can help explain hard to understand concepts and receive the context-specific support and academic guidance which they need to gain the relevant knowledge and skills that can help improve the quality of life and career prospects. Currently, all camp-based schools follow the Kenyan curriculum and sit for Kenyan National Exams. Primary and secondary schools in the camps are headed by Principals registered by the Teacher Service Commission and all camp-based teaching personnel have also been trained on the Competency Based Curriculum. Incentive teachers (refugee teachers remunerated with incentive payments) receive online training from universities such as Kenyatta University and Masinde Muliro in their satellite campuses in Dadaab and Kakuma refugee camps respectively. Refugee learners also participate in co-curricular activities and have been included in national scholarship programmes.

Living in camps which are usually overcrowded, with inadequate sanitation and poor access to basic health services, refugee and IDPs are sometimes left to their own devises to address the health challenges they are facing. The need to raise awareness, educate and build local capacity to prevent and control some of the health challenges is important. Entry level public health courses such as the Basic Medical Training for Health Workers available to health care workers at the Dadaab camp provides camp inhabitants with the skilled personnel needed to enhance health services in the camps. For example, IDPs in Nigeria are relying on untrained birth attendants to reduce the maternal mortality rate.

As the pandemic continues to cause havoc in host countries, refugees have been producing reusable face masks, making soap which are being distributed to other refugees and the host communities. and which are being distributed to refugee and host communities. The relationship between host and refugee communities is sometimes complimentary. The provision of health and education facilities in some of the camps such as Kolibyei benefits the local communities who lack these services after years of marginalisation. Indeed, a study conducted in Kenya revealed that in some instances refugees are actually better off than the surrounding host populations. Even though they have comparable employment levels, working refugees’ income is higher than the local community and they also have better diets, higher consumptions and more assets. Despite this gap, the Turkana community hosts benefit immensely from the refugee presence who buy the meat, firewood and charcoal that they sell and sometimes they even get work from the relief organisations.

And even as countries roll out vaccines for their populations albeit slowly due to a shortage of the vaccines, the situation for refugees and other similar vulnerable communities is in jeopardy as plans to allocate up to 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses to humanitarian troublespots by the end of this year could be derailed because neither the drug companies nor the UN agencies and NGOs want to shoulder the risk of potential lawsuits. An estimated 167 million people are likely to be missed out as governments roll out their national vaccination programmes. COVAX , the worldwide vaccine-sharing initiative, agreed in March to set aside five percent of its vaccine doses for hard-to-reach communities left out of national rollout plans.

Despite the challenges that African countries are facing with the pandemic and the impact that this has had on their economies,  there are lessons that many can learn from the way host countries handle refugees and other vulnerable communities. For example, the continent has one of the most progressive legal frameworks around the protection and wellbeing of refugees and IDPs. More than 25 states have ratified the Kampala Convention which legally binds governments to providing support and protecting the wellbeing of IDPs and refugees. However, the implementation and practise of the convention is quite  distinct. While the implementation of the convention has been far from comprehensive due to lack of resources, legal capacity and political will, the convention’s humanitarian spirit reflects the often inclusive and welcoming approach of African states in times of crisis.

The Horn of Africa’s response to Yemeni refugees has been open, even welcoming, when compared with the reception of refugees elsewhere. This reception of refugees stands in stark contrast to the blatantly defensive response to migration of some European governments which have crafted specific and detailed mechanisms for dealing with refugee protection in situations of mass influx. In contrast, African states have adopted a more pragmatic approach where they confer refugee status on a group basis to all those fleeing a zone affected by conflict or even drought. Different states signatory to the convention have been implementing it with varying degrees of openness.

For example, in South Africa, refugees can settle anywhere in the country and enjoy freedom of movement. Special permits are given to allow economic migrants from Lesotho and Zimbabwe to work and live in the country. However, in practise the refugees face many challenges in accessing their rights to social protections such as legal documents, social grants and security of stay. Refugees and migrants have also been targetted in xenophobic attacks that are usually triggered by local disputes with migrants being accused of taking jobs away from South Africans.

Uganda, which hosts the highest number of refugees in the continent, is also recognised for having one of the most progressive refugee policies in the world. Refugees are allowed the right to work and enjoy significant freedom of movement. As far as the Uganda government is concerned, refugees are considered and protected as ‘assets’ economic actors who can and do make a contribution to the  state rather than a burden. One of the distinguishing features of Uganda’s refugee protection model is its allocation of plots of land for cultivation to refugees living in settlements to enable them grow crops for their own subsistence to supplement the food rations they receive and also for sale to the local community as a source of income. This model has however been placed under great pressure as the number of refugees continues to grow. Tensions between the host communities and the refugees have grown as more land is taken to cater for the growing number of refugees raising questions about the sustainability of this model. In contrast, the Kenya government has and continues to pursue a policy of keeping refugees in camps and limiting their freedom of movement.

All asylum seekers and refugees are required to live in their designated refugee camps and need a movement pass in order to travel anywhere outside the camp. In recent years the government has threatened to close down the camps alleging that they are harbouring terrorists. The most recent threat was in April this year when the government issued UNHCR with a two week ultimatum to have a roadmap for the closure of the Dadaab and Kakuma camps. The government has threatened to restrict refugees to camps or close the camps altogether several times before. 

In 2016, the government announced the closure of Dadaab and threatened to truck  Somali refugees back to their homes— at least to the Kenya-Somalia border— if they did not accept an ultimatum to sign up and collect a cash incentive for “voluntary” repatriation.This recent threat is more worrying as it is coming at a time when pandemic has made life increasingly difficult for both refugees and host communities alike and resources from humanitarian and donor agencies  are difficult to come by. The perceived danger posed by refugees serves as a useful tool in populist politics and has in the past served to negotiate further aid or galvanize fearful citizens. However, until the situation in Somalia or the neighbouring countries stabilises, the government has to continue providing protection to all refugees. A rethink of the refugee policy–allowing them greater freedom and integration is a good place to start.

Kenya can learn from its neighbours such as Uganda and Tanzania where refugees are allowed to participate in the local economy. In Tanzania, over 200,000 refugees from Burundi have been granted citizenship giving them access to land rights and allowing them to participate in politics. Zambia has granted long-term former refugees residency, access to land rights and socio-economic integration. Uganda grants refugees small plots of land in the villages where they are able to grow crops for self-sustenance as well as for sale to the local community.

However progressive the refugee policies are, all host governments face similar challenges – how to protect and provide assistance to the refugees at a time when public budgets and social structures are stretched to breaking point. Empowering host governments, and specifically, local governments and enabling them to extend service delivery to the host and refugee settlements is important in increasing tolerance. Across the border in Uganda is the largest refugee-hosting country in the continent with over a million refugees, most of them from South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Burundi and Somalia.

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