No Solutions in Sight: the Problem of Protracted

A definition While the notion of protracted refugee situations is now commonly used by UNHCR, the concept has never been formally defined or elaborated by the organization. For the purposes of this paper, refugees can be regarded as being in a protracted situation when they have lived in exile for more than five years, and when they still have no immediate prospect of finding a durable solution to their plight by means of voluntary repatriation, local integration, or resettlement.4 In simpler terms, refugees in protracted situations find themselves trapped in a state of limbo: they cannot go back to their homeland, in most cases because it is not safe for them to do so; they are unable to settle permanently in their country of first asylum, because the host state does not want them to remain indefinitely on its territory; and they do not have the option of moving on, as no third country has agreed to admit them and to provide them with permanent residence rights. This paper, it should be noted, confines its definition to those situations in which refugees are living in camps, organized settlements and in designated geographical zones. It does not look   at the circumstances of those long-term refugees who have settled independently in rural or urban areas, and who in general receive little or no assistance from UNHCR or any other humanitarian organization. Africa’s long-term refugees Protracted refugee situations are to be found in most parts of the world, with the general exception of Central and South America. But by far the majority of these situations are to be found in Africa. While it is difficult to provide definitive figures on this matter, it would appear that some three million African refugees found themselves in such circumstances at the end of 2001, when UNHCR published its last set of global refugee statistics.5 These included: • 400,000 Angolan refugees in Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) • 520,000 Burundi refugees in Tanzania 275,000 DRC refugees in Angola, Congo- Brazzaville, Tanzania and Zambia • 325,000 Eritrean refugees in Sudan • 210,000 Liberian refugees in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea and Sierra Leone • 165,000 Sahrawi refugees in Algeria • 150,000 Sierra Leonean refugees in Guinea and Liberia • 300,000 Somali refugees in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen • 450,000 Sudanese refugees in Central African Republic (CAR), Chad, DRC, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda It would be misleading to give the impression that the problem of protracted refugee situations is entirely new. Indeed, some 17 years ago, the Refugee Policy Group produced an extensive report titled ‘Older refugee settlements in Africa’, which underlined the fact that many of the continent’s refugees had lived in exile for many years.6 It is the contention of this paper, however, that the circumstances and conditions of Africa’s long-term refugees have changed significantly – and in almost every respect changed for the worse – over the past two decades. Repatriation and integration The presence of so many protracted refugee situations in Africa can be linked to the fact that countries of asylum, donor states, UNHCR and other actors have given so little attention to the solution of local integration during the past 15 years. Indeed, from the mid-1980s onwards, a consensus was forged around the notion that repatriation – normally but not necessarily on a voluntary basis – was the only viable solution to refugee problems in Africa and other low-income regions. Why exactly did repatriation emerge as the preferred solution to Africa’s refugee problems in the 1980s and 1990s? And why did the alternative approaches of local integration and local settlement disappear from the agenda?7 Such issues have been examined in detail elsewhere, and do not warrant an extensive discussion in this paper.8 Suffice it to say that the ‘repatriation rather than integration’ approach assumed such dominance for a variety of reasons: • because earlier efforts to promote local settlement and self-reliance in Africa’s rural refugee settlements had achieved very limited results; • because refugees were increasingly regarded as an economic and environmental burden on the countries which hosted them; • because African countries with large refugee populations felt that the burden they had accepted was not being adequately shared by the world’s more prosperous states; • because many refugee-hosting countries in Africa had declining economies, growing populations and were themselves affected by conflict, instability; 7 These issues are addressed in Jacobsen (2001). 8 See, for example, Chimni (1999), Crisp (2000a) and Rutinwa (1999). 3 • because refugees came to be regarded (especially after the Great Lakes crisis) as a threat to local, national and even regional security, especially in situations where they were mixed with armed and criminal elements; and, • because the post-cold war democratization process in some African states meant that politicians had an interest in mobilizing electoral support on the basis of xenophobic and anti-refugee sentiments. In combination, the variables listed above contrived to bring about a situation where very few refugees in Africa (especially those in organized camps and settlements) were given any encouragement to remain and settle in their country of asylum. And yet it was precisely at this time that the changing nature of conflict in the continent made speedy and voluntary repatriation an increasingly elusive solution for so many refugees.9 Rather than responding to this impasse in innovative ways, the principal members of the international refugee regime (host and donor countries, UNHCR and NGOs) chose to implement long-term ‘care-and-maintenance’ programmes which did little or nothing to promote self-reliance amongst refugees or to facilitate positive interactions between the exiled and local populations. According to some critics, this was partly because UNHCR, as well as governmental and non-governmental refugee agencies, had a vested interest in perpetuating the ‘relief model’ of refugee assistance, which entailed the establishment of large, highly visible and internationally funded camps, administered entirely separately from the surrounding area and population.10 ‘Residual caseloads’ Some of the people who find themselves in protracted refugee situations are members of ‘residual caseloads’ – those who decide to remain in exile when other members of the same population have been able to repatriate, resettle or become locally integrated in their country of asylum. To give just one example of this phenomenon, large numbers of Liberian refugees returned to their own country at the end of the 1990s, when a new government had been elected and the country was relatively peaceful. Nevertheless, sizeable numbers of Liberian refugees have chosen to remain in countries of asylum such as Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Guinea. Why do some refugees choose not to go home, even when conditions in their country of origin appear to have stabilized? This phenomenon is again a result of several different factors: • because ‘residual caseload’ refugees have a continuing and legitimate fear of persecution in their own country, or because they come from minority groups which are at risk of other forms of harassment and discrimination; • because the degree of destruction in the refugees’ place of origin is so great that the people concerned do not feel that they will be able to survive at home; 9 It should also be noted that the other solution to refugee problems – resettlement to a third country – has not been available to significant numbers of African refugees. Between 1992 and 2001, some 90,000 African refugees were resettled in other parts of the world, a tiny proportion of the continent’s refugee population. 10 See, for example, Harrell-Bond (2002). 4 • because the circumstances which originally forced people to become refugees were so traumatic that they cannot return to their country of origin, even if they would not be at risk if they were to repatriate; • because they lack the capital required to make the journey home and to make ends meet during the initial process of reintegration: • because the ‘residual caseload’ refugees are too old, too young or too sick to embark upon what will inevitably be a very arduous repatriation and reintegration process; • because the refugees have close ethnic, linguistic, social or economic links with the local population and the country of asylum; • because refugees who remain in a country of asylum may enjoy better access to education, health services and resettlement opportunities than those who return to their country of origin11; and, • because certain refugee groups may choose to remain in exile and to pursue their political objectives from the country which has granted them asylum. Political hostages In some parts of Africa, the search for durable solutions to refugee problems has been complicated and delayed by the political, military and economic interests of key actors. Analyzing the situation of Sahrawi refugees in Algeria, for example, Van Bruaene argues that Tindouf region, where the refugee camps are to be found, “was obviously selected for political and military, rather than humanitarian reasons.” “In some protracted situations,” he suggests, “elderly charismatic and historical leaderships tend to embody rigid political agenda, needlessly detrimental to the well-being of their own vulnerable refugee population.” “A good example,” he continues, “is that although Tindouf is totally unsuitable for supporting a refugee population of 165,000, any idea of temporary scattering to more fertile areas is unmentionable.”12 The large numbers of Eritrean refugees who remained in Sudan after their country of origin became independent in 1992 provides another example of the way in which refugees can become hostages to fortune. Initially, large-scale repatriation was delayed by the scale of the devastation that had taken place in Eritrea, the refugees’ caution in returning to such conditions, and the need for discussions with the new government concerning the repatriation and reintegration effort. According to some commentators, the new government was concerned that the mainly Muslim refugees, many of whom had been exposed to Islamic fundamentalism in Sudan, might have a destabilizing effect on the country. In 1993, after some very difficult negotiations, the Eritrean authorities and the United Nations agreed upon a $260 million repatriation and reintegration programme for refugees in Sudan, and in November 1994, UNHCR launched a six-month pilot project involving the return of 25,000 Eritreans. While the pilot project is generally considered to have been a success, the 11 Sommers (2002), for example, highlights the fact that the educational facilities and opportunities that are available to refugees in Kakuma camp in Kenya are far superior to those available in southern Sudan. Even if a lasting peace could be established in Sudan, it seems very probable that some refugees would choose to remain in Kenya for this reason. 12 Van Bruaene (2001) p. 17. 5 organized repatriation movement quickly became stalled, largely as a result of two factors: the deteriorating relationship between the Sudanese and Eritrean governments, which eventually led to a rupture of diplomatic relations; and growing insecurity in the border area, resulting from clashes between the Sudanese armed forces and a rebel group. Characteristics of protracted refugee situations in Africa One must be cautious in making generalizations about protracted refugee situations in Africa, as each of these situations has its own history, dynamics and peculiarities. Nevertheless, on the basis of the case studies undertaken and reviewed by UNHCR’s Evaluation and Policy Analysis Unit, it is possible to identify some features which are common to many of the continent’s protracted refugee situations. Restricted refugee rights A final characteristic that is common to many protracted refugee situations in Africa is the inability of exiled populations to avail themselves of basic human rights – including those rights to which refugees are entitled under the provisions of the 1951 Refugee Convention and other international instruments.29 These ‘restrictive conditions’, which are common to many of the protracted situations in Africa, include the following: • limited physical security; refugees are at risk of attack and abuse by soldiers, militia forces, rebel groups and bandits, based both in the country of asylum and in the refugees’ country of origin; • limited freedom of movement: refugees are confined to camps or designated areas and can only leave them with special permission; they may be subject to fines and penal sentences if they fail to comply with these regulations; • limited civil and political rights: refugees may be barred from engaging in any kind of political activity, from holding mass meetings, from establishing their own associations and organizations; • limited legal rights: refugees in many of Africa’s protracted refugee situations do not have a clearly defined legal status, do not have residence rights, and have no prospect of seeking naturalization in their country of asylum. Their children may be effectively stateless. • limited freedom of choice: as indicated earlier, refugees in protracted refugee situations A final right denied to many of Africa’s long-term refugees is the ability to engage in agricultural, wage-earning and income-generating opportunities. In some countries of asylum, refugees are confronted with legal constraints on their economic activities: they do not have access to land, they are not allowed to enter the labour market, they cannot take out commercial loans, and restrictions on their freedom of movement make it difficult for them to engage in trade. Even in situations where host governments have pursued more liberal policies, and have made agricultural land available to refugees, it is becoming increasingly difficult for exiled populations to exercise their rights in an effective manner   A similar pattern can be observed in Sudan, where large-scale agricultural settlements for refugees have been in existence for several decades. In Sudan the government had allocated between five and 10 acres of land for refugee use in settlements. However, except in the six settlements in the Qala en Nahal area, the rest of the land allocated to refugees is located in low rainfall areas. As a result, the refugees in these settlements commonly experience crop failure. In fact, most of them do not even bother to cultivate the land because the return they expect to get is often below the cost of production. Even the refugees around Qala en Nahal have been facing problems of considerable yield decline because of the depletion of soil nutrients and heavy weed infestation caused by over-cultivation. The refugees are legally prohibited from bringing new cultivable land outside the designated areas into the production process… No additional allocations were made by the government during the last three decades and a half, and the consequence has been over-fragmentation of farms to accommodate the 31 Jones (2002) p. 28. 32 Werker (2002) pp. 9-14. 33 Kaiser (2001) p. 13. 11 needs of newly established families. Most farmers have been cultivating their plots for over 30 years without fallow periods or fertilizer.34 Material deprivation The case studies reviewed in the preparation of this paper suggest that Africa’s long-term refugees take whatever opportunities they can to establish their own livelihoods and to supplement the meagre levels of assistance they receive. Lawday’s review of the protracted refugee situation in Sudan also reaches a gloomy conclusion: After years of generous assistance, the refugees were totally dependent on outside assistance. Most projects failed to create self-reliance, leaving refugees in a precarious economic and social situation, with food security not assured. Land distribution and wage-earning opportunities fell behind refugee needs. A study found that refugees were living in reception centres, nine wage-based settlements and 11 land-based settlements. Only an estimated 16 per cent were able to farm and even fewer kept animals. More than half did wage earning activities, but only seasonally, and could not meet household needs. Food needs remained as before and sometimes even higher Source: the center for comparative immigration studies University of California, San Diego

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