World Refugee Day June 20: A Time to Celebrate?

by James Milner

June 19, 2004) June 20 is World Refugee Day, a day to reflect on the state of the world’s 12 million refugees. One of these 12 million is a young Somali student named Abass Hassan Mohamed.

Abass is the second-oldest of six children. His family fled to Kenya, along with hundreds of thousands of other refugees, in the midst of the violent implosion of Somalia in 1992. He says very little about his early days in the refugee camp, apart from the fact that it was dusty, hot, violent, and that people died on a daily basis.

12 years later, he still lives in a refugee camp near Dadaab, in the Northeast Province of Kenya, just 80kms from the border with Somalia, along with almost 135,000 other refugees.This February, one year late, Abass received the results from his national secondary school exams. Competing against students from across the country, Abass sat in exams in subjects as diverse as English, Chemistry, Commerce and Swahili. His results were extraordinary. He ranked first in the Northeast Province of Kenya, and eighth in the whole of Kenya.

Although he does not brag, Abass overcame incredible odds to achieve this remarkable result. Of the 44 students in his class, only 32 graduated. His days were full not only with the extra-curricular activities like football, the debating club and the school environment club, but also with more demanding tasks, like standing in the blazing sun and 45C heat for hours to receive the family’s fortnightly rations of a few kilograms of maize. He learned to survive in one of the most violent camps in Africa, where rape, murder and armed robbery were almost daily occurrences.

There were only 300 desks in the whole school, so Abass had to share with two other students, with whom he also shared textbooks. He tried to work on his homework in the evenings, when the chores were done, but his family rarely had the fuel for the single kerosene lamp.

Abass now works as a teacher in one of the primary schools in his camp run by the aid agency CARE, earning 3,775 KSh/- a month, about $48. If a scholarship can be found, Abass plans on studying medicine. In a community where there is only one doctor for 135,000 people, Abass feels that training in medicine is the best way that he can help his people, both in exile and when they return to Somalia. Abass believes that day will come.

Abass is but one example of the millions of refugees around the world, young and old, who have skills and abilities they want to contribute, but who are wasting away in isolated and insecure camps, trapped in a protracted refugee situation. The UN recently reported that, in Africa alone, there are over 3 million refugees who have spent over 5 years in the confines of a refugee camp, with no freedom of movement, dwindling donor support, and slim prospects of a solution for their plight.

This year’s World Refugee Day celebrates the 30th Anniversary of the entry into force of the Organisations for African Unity’s (OAU’s) Refugee Convention. This Convention is hailed by many as one of the most liberal refugee regimes in the world, expanding the refugee definition from those fleeing an individual fear of persecution to those also feeling civil conflict. But looking at the current state of refugee protection in Africa, there is little to celebrate.

Host countries across Africa continue to limit the quality and quantity of asylum they offer to refugees, fleeing both persecution and civil war. Refugees are increasingly ‘warehoused’ in remote camps, cut-off from local communities and fully dependent on international assistance.

Unlike the ‘golden age’ of asylum in Africa, when refugees were allocated land to pursue self-sufficiency, host countries today often cite security concerns, environmental degradation and lack of support from donor governments as a justification for placing restrictions on the asylum they offer. In cases of mass influx, states are increasingly likely to try to close their borders to new arrivals or, as in the recent case of Darfur, hinder access to humanitarian agencies.The result is a crisis in asylum in Africa.

This crisis is compounded by a reluctance on the part of Western governments to support the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in fulfilling the Mandate it received from the UN General Assembly in 1950: to provide international protection for refugees and to find a permanent solution to their plight. States have agreed, since 1951, that the granting of asylum places a heavy burden on certain states, and that the solution to the world’s refugee problem cannot be achieved without international co-operation. Yet the West does little to cooperate.

When asylum seekers flee the insecurity of regions of refugee origin, they find increasing barriers to protection in Europe and North America. When the UNHCR appeals to donor countries to fund its programs in Africa, insufficient contributions are made. UNHCR has appealed for over $50 million to respond to the unfolding humanitarian emergency on the Chad/Sudan border, but has received only $18 million.

This funding crisis directly affects the level of protection that refugees across Africa receive on a daily basis. A lack of funds means that programs will not be implemented to prevent the rape of refugee women, that protection staff will not be deployed to register new refugees, that education programs will need to be cut, and that food assistance to refugees, already below internationally recognized standards, will need to be reduced.

A lack of donor engagement also inhibits the prospects of finding durable solutions to the plight of refugees. Three durable solutions have historically been used to resolve refugee situations. First, refugees have been able to integrate into their host community. Through the 1960s and 1970s, refugees fleeing wars of national liberation and civil wars in Africa were welcomed into their newly independent neighbors and encouraged, with the support of the international community and aid agencies, to settle on under-utilized land and rebuild their lives in a new country. Thousands were given citizenship, and many refugees were able to make significant contributions to their adopted countries. Such programs are no longer possible in Africa.

Second, refugees have been able to voluntarily repatriate to their country of origin when the conflict has been resolved and when the mechanisms have been established to support their return and reintegration. With the end of the prolonged civil war in Mozambique in the early 1990s, almost a million refugees were able to return from Malawi. Sustained programs ensured the success of their reintegration. In stark contrast, many instances of repatriation are less than voluntary. Many Burundian refugees are returning from Tanzania not because they believe that they will find peace in their homeland, but because they want to escape the unbearable conditions in the refugee camps. Many say that if they are going to die, they would rather die at home.

Even when the UN does believe that conditions in the country of origin could support large-scale repatriation and reintegration, the necessary funds are not forthcoming. In March 2004, the UNHCR appealed for donor support to lay the foundations for the repatriation of refugees to seven African countries. Two of these countries were Liberia and Sudan. While repatriation is not immediately possible to these countries, investment is essential in the coming months to ensure that the infrastructure is in place to support repatriation in the coming years. UNHCR appealed for $8.8 million for preparatory activities in Sudan. It has received $3 million. Likewise, it has appealed for $39.2 million to support operations in Liberia for return and reintegration of both refugees and internally displaced persons. It has received only $3 million.

If a refugee cannot return to their country of origin, and if they cannot remain in their country of asylum, the only remaining solution for them is to be resettled to a third country. Resettlement is a long
and demanding process, but it is the only possible durable solution for many refugees, especially refugees with special needs. Given the protracted nature of many of today’s refugee situations and given the severity of many of the protection environments in which they survive, this durable solution is increasingly essential, but alarmingly scarce. While most of Africa’s 3 million camp-bound refugees would qualify for resettlement, only 100,000 resettlement opportunities are made available by Western countries for resettlement programs around the world. At the same time, UNHCR lacks the capacity and the institutional will to fill even this meager quota.

But more money to UNHCR is not the answer to the plight of Africa’s refugees. UNHCR is only part of the solution, and greater financial contributions without the backing of political will is wasted. Full funding for UNHCR’s programs is an important first step, but it is not enough.

A solution to the plight of the world’s refugees must begin with the recognition that the problem of displacement is a global problem, and requires a global solution. The answer on the part of the international community should not be to pull-up the draw-bridges and sharpen the swords. The answer must be found in understanding how various aspects of foreign engagement – trade, aid, military, and foreign policy – can both cause refugee movements and affect the quality of asylum they receive.

Second, the leaders of the West must understand that it is in everybody’s interest to resolve the world’s protracted refugee situations. It is not only immoral to keep refugees warehoused in camps across Africa; it is uneconomical, can foster insecurity, and contributes to the growing resentment on the part of ‘host’ governments. Just as the plight of chronic refugee groups in Europe was resolved in the 1960s, there is urgent need for the political will and creative thinking to formulate comprehensive solutions for today’s protracted refugee situations in Africa.

Finally, refugees themselves should be involved in the process of determining their future. 30 years ago, refugees mattered. They were fleeing wars of national liberation in Africa or communism in Eastern
Europe. In the context of the Cold War, they had political utility. Today, they are seen as hopeless and helpless, anonymous victims and huddled masses on our television screens.

But hopeless and helpless they are not. Like Abass, refugees have hopes and dreams for the future, and the ability, desire and skills to contribute to resolving the world’s refugee problem. But contained in camps, they can do little. With the financial and political support of the international community, they could do great things.

The coming into force of the African Refugee Convention 30 years ago was a great step forward for refugees. Since then, we have taken many great leaps backwards. It’s time to reverse the trend.

James Milner is a Trudeau Scholar and doctoral student at the Refugee Studies Center, Queen Elizabeth House, University of Oxford. He has formerly worked as a consultant for UNHCR in India, Cameroon, Guinea and Geneva, and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles.

This editorial first appeared in Pazambuka News, which can be seen at

  • World Hunger Education
    P.O. Box 29015
    Washington, D.C. 20017
  • For the past 40 years, since its founding in 1976, the mission of World Hunger Education Service is to undertake programs, including Hunger Notes, that
    • Educate the general public and target groups about the extent and causes of hunger and malnutrition in the United States and the world
    • Advance comprehension which integrates ethical, religious, social, economic, political, and scientific perspectives on the world food problem
    • Facilitate communication and networking among those who are working for solutions
    • Promote individual and collective commitments to sustainable hunger solutions.