Forced Displacement in Africa: “Anchors not Walls” Contents


“Every 2 seconds, a person is forced to flee.

Every day 44,400 more people are driven from their home.”


1.In 2019 the world is in the midst of the greatest displacement crisis on record. An estimated 68.5 million people worldwide have been forced to flee their homes due to persecution, conflict and violence.1 This is equivalent to the entire population of the United Kingdom being uprooted from their families, livelihoods and support systems.2 The vast majority of those forcibly displaced—around 40 million—remain within their own country, becoming internally displaced persons (IDPs).3 A further 28.5 million are refugees and asylum seekers who have crossed an international border.4 Whether inside or outside their own country, displaced people are among the most vulnerable in the world and one of the groups most at risk of being “left behind” as the world strives to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

2.In the UK, people tend to be most familiar with images of people crossing the Mediterranean in boats, as the media often focuses on those refugees and migrants who make the journey to Europe. In reality, over 20 million refugees and IDPs—the largest “population of concern” to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) globally—live in Sub-Saharan Africa, in some of the poorest countries in the world. As we were told in evidence, “The African continent is home to some of the most complex and protracted refugee and internal displacement crises” and in 2017 over half of new conflict displacement took place in the region.5

3.The African refugee crisis rarely makes the headlines. In fact, seven of the top ten countries of origin for refugees, and three of the top ten host countries for refugees are all in Sub-Saharan Africa. South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR), Eritrea and Burundi are all the sources of huge numbers of refugees. Citizens of these countries have experienced the effects of brutal conflict, devastating poverty and severe human rights abuses, which have caused hundreds of thousands—or even millions in the case of South Sudan and Somalia—to flee.6 The vast majority of those who leave their homes remain in the country or within the region. Uganda (1.2m refugees and asylum seekers), Sudan (900,000) and Ethiopia (889,000) all host substantial refugee communities.7 Africa’s approach to displaced people has been lauded as the ‘gold standard’ by the UN Secretary-General, with generosity that surpasses other regions.8 However, the extent of the challenge means this generosity is increasingly under strain. The African Union has declared 2019 the year of “Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons” with the goal of finding durable solutions for those displaced in the region.9

Number of Refugees in Sub-Saharan Africa (by host country, mid-2017)

Source: UNHCR

Box 1: Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers

Migrant. A migrant is someone who is moving from place to place (within his or her country or across borders).

Refugee. A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her home because of war, violence or persecution and, crucially, has crossed an international border. Those who obtain refugee status have rights to specific protections under international law and to life-saving support from aid agencies.

Asylum seeker. An asylum seeker is someone who is also seeking international protection from dangers in his or her home country, but whose claim for refugee status has yet to be determined legally.

Internally Displaced Person. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are those who have been forced to flee their homes, usually as a result of armed conflict, generalised violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, who remain within their own country rather than crossing an international border. IDPs do not have the same protections under international law as refugees because they are assumed to be entitled to the same rights and freedoms as all citizens of their country and which they enjoyed prior to displacement.

Source: International Rescue Committee, Migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants: What’s the difference?, accessed 29 January 2019; Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, Internal Displacement, accessed 30 January 2019

4.Forced displacement in Africa is generally protracted. UNHCR states that the average length of protracted refugee situations globally is now 26 years.10 This presents an even greater challenge for the international community, as people unable to return home seek to create new lives but find themselves trapped in limbo. Whether living in a camp or in a host community, few refugees are able to move freely or work legally. Those displaced internally are often living in dire conditions, in poorly serviced IDP camps or in urban areas or host settlements where jobs and services are scarce. Providing displaced people with stability and opportunities requires investment and support from host countries and communities. In the past, much of this support has been provided in camps. However, with people being displaced for longer, the focus is increasingly on enabling them to become self-reliant in a new location, with the twin advantages of enhancing their freedom and dignity and reducing the cost of support.

5.For IDPs, this requires governments to ensure people have security, access to basic services and the opportunity to build a new life, with a livelihood and a home, in a new part of the country. For refugees, it requires host countries to enable people to work, access national public services and—if they are unable to return home—to build a new life there. This is a challenge for these, mainly low and middle-income countries, logistically, politically and financially. The New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2016, affirmed that the international community needed to step up, and that other, wealthier, nations should be sharing the load.11

The Global Compact for Refugees

6.By the end of 2017, there were 25.4 million refugees worldwide; more than the population of Australia.12 There are many reasons why people are forced to flee across borders, but conflict, violence and persecution are the most common. Established after World War Two, with the creation of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in 1950 and the adoption of the Refugee Convention in 1951, the global refugee system was put in place to help find solutions for the millions of Europeans forced to leave their homes. The rights of refugees are guaranteed under the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defined the term ‘refugee’ and outlined their rights and the legal obligations of host countries to protect them.13 The system has evolved over time but was not designed to deal with the numbers of refugees seen today, or for the increasingly protracted nature of displacement. For this reason, experts such as Professor Sir Paul Collier and Professor Alexander Betts have called for “a new approach to global refugee policy”.14

7.Providing the millions of people currently displaced with the support they need and the opportunity for a better future will require cooperation and commitment from the international community as a whole. In December 2018, Members of the UN General Assembly, including the UK, endorsed the Global Compact on Refugees (Refugee Compact) which aims to do just this. The Refugee Compact provides the basis for a coordinated international response and more equitable distribution of the responsibility for protecting and supporting refugees, which currently falls disproportionately with a small number of low and middle-income countries. The Refugee Compact’s stated objectives are to:

8.An integral part of the Refugee Compact is the CRRF, which aims to deliver on the Compact’s commitments in countries with a high concentration of refugees. In Africa, Chad, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda and Zambia have signed up to implement the framework and Somalia will be supported by a regional approach.

9.The Refugee Compact was negotiated in parallel to the Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (Migration Compact), but the processes were purposefully kept very separate. The Migration Compact was far more contentious and a number of UN Member States, including the US, Hungary, Czech Republic, Israel and Poland, refused to adopt the deal.16 The Refugee Compact was less disputed, outlining a way to manage the rights of refugees, which are already guaranteed in international law. It was not without its opponents, however, and when put to the UN General Assembly in December 2018, the US and Hungary opposed the resolution containing the Compact, whilst Eritrea, Libya and Liberia abstained from the vote.17

10.The Refugee Compact could be used as a framework to make global progress on supporting refugees. However, the agreement is not legally binding, even on signatory governments. It will therefore require a strong mechanism to ensure governments are held to account on their commitments. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are not represented in the Refugee Compact or the Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. This has led many to argue that a similar international agreement is needed to address their needs.18

Our inquiry

11.In January 2017 our predecessor Committee launched an inquiry into ‘Forced Displacement and Food Crises in Central and East Africa’. This followed the Kenyan Government’s announcement that it intended to close the Dadaab refugee camps, home to over 200,000 refugees, mostly from neighbouring Somalia. During the course of the inquiry, levels of food insecurity across East Africa rose sharply and famine was declared in Unity State in South Sudan. As a result, the inquiry expanded to look into the causes of, and response to, the food crises.

12.The inquiry was cut short after just one evidence session by the 2017 General Election. The Committee concluded the inquiry with a letter to the then Secretary of State outlining the Committee’s major concerns: repatriation of Somali refugees, the lack of sustainable multi-year funding to support those displaced in East Africa, and the need for longer-term, more durable solutions for those fleeing protracted crises.19 This inquiry follows on from, and expands, our predecessor Committee’s work on this issue.

13.In July 2017, we invited submissions on all aspects of Forced Displacement in Africa, setting out the following questions:

14.During the inquiry, Committee members visited Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia to investigate the UK’s support for governments, UN agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) providing shelter and services for those forcibly displaced by conflict and persecution in East Africa.20 We were extremely grateful for the assistance, advice, engagement and openness we encountered while conducting this visit, both from staff of DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) at all levels and from our many interlocuters from national, local and municipal governments and agencies, UN and other multilateral organisations, international, national, and very local, NGOs. Perhaps most of all, we would like to thank those refugees, and representatives of host communities, for the patience and courage shown in sharing their stories and experiences with us.

1 UNHCR, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017, 25 June 2018, p. 2

2 On 28 June 2018, the estimated UK population was 66 million. Source: Office of National Statistics

3 UNHCR, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017, 25 June 2018, p. 2

4 UNHCR, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017, 25 June 2018, p. 2

5 Norwegian Refugee Council/Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (FDA0013) para 1.2-1.3

6 UNHCR, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017, 25 June 2018, p. 15

7 UNHCR, Global Focus: Uganda, accessed 26 February 2019; UNHCR, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017, p. 17-18

11 UNHCR UK, New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, accessed 20 February 2019

12 UNHCR, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017, 25 June 2018, p. 2; Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Demographic Statistics: June 2018, accessed 20 February 2019

13 UNCHR, The 1951 Refugee Convention, accessed 31 January 2019

14 Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System (St Ives, 2017)

16 The migration compact was adopted by a recorded vote of 152 in favour to five against (Czech Republic, Hungary, Israel, Poland, and United States), with 12 abstentions (Algeria, Australia, Austria, Bulgaria, Chile, Italy, Latvia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Romania, Singapore, and Switzerland). 24 countries did not vote: Afghanistan, Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Benin, Botswana, Brunei Darussalam, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Dominican Republic, Guinea, Kiribati, Kyrgyzstan, Micronesia, Panama, Paraguay, Sao Tome and Principe, Seychelles, Slovenia, Somalia, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Vanuatu. (Source: “A Historic Victory for the UN: Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees Adopted This Week”, Center for Immigration Studies, 20 December 2018)

18 See chapter 3

20 A summary programme of the East Africa visit is included in the Annex

Published: 5 March 2019