Armed conflict, climate change fan Africa’s refugee crisis

Friday January 21 2022

An estimated 1.7 million people had been displaced by conflict and violence in Ethiopia as at the end of 2020. PHOTO | AFP


Eastern Africa continues to be the origin of most African refugees, with the region producing more than five million displaced people in 2020, a new report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has revealed.

Terrorism, armed conflict and extreme weather events such as floods, cyclones, droughts, storms and locust outbreaks have damaged livelihoods across the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region, resulting in large displacements of people.

Conflict escalating crisis

The situation has been compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has taken a toll on millions of migrants in Eastern and Southern Africa.

According to the IOM World Migration Report 2022, an increase in terrorist attacks in parts of Southern and Eastern Africa remained a significant driver of displacement.

Al-Shabaab attacks in Somalia and armed operations against the militant group continue to drive people from their homes.


“In northern Mozambique, violent attacks by Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama have resulted in a sharp increase in displacement. By the end of 2020, conflict and violence had resulted in over half a million displacements in Mozambique, the fourth-largest number of new conflict displacements in the World in that year,” IOM said.

In South Sudan, the conflict between community militias continued in 2020 despite a peace accord that has restored a degree of stability.

In the Horn of Africa, the ongoing conflict in Ethiopia has cost thousands of lives and resulted in internal and cross-border displacement in Tigray and neighbouring Afar and Amhara.

An estimated 1.7 million people had been displaced by conflict and violence in Ethiopia as at the end of 2020, the third-largest figure in the world, after the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Syrian Arab Republic. Thousands also fled the country due to the violence, many hosted in neighbouring Sudan.

Globally, an estimated 281 million people lived in a country other than that of their birth in 2020, which equates to 3.6 per cent of the population.


In 2020, South Sudan was the origin of the fourth-largest number of refugees globally at over two million, just below Afghanistan. PHOTO | AFP

Eastern Africa continues to simultaneously host and be the origin of some of the largest refugee populations in the world.

In 2020, South Sudan was the origin of the fourth-largest number of refugees globally at over two million, just below Afghanistan with 2.8 million refugees. Syria topped the list with 6.8 million people followed by Venezuela with 4.9 million refugees.

The Covid-19 pandemic worsened the plight of refugees.

It instrumentalised xenophobia in southern Africa and scapegoated migrants while restrictions of movement resulted in a significant decline in migration and mobility.

Uganda, for example, the host to one of the largest refugee populations in the world, ceased its “open door” policy to refugees and asylum seekers in early 2020.

According to the IOM report, thousands of migrants were left stranded in the region without work while those abroad lacked a means to return home as countries closed their borders. IOM said there was a decline in migration from the region to Europe while the number of migrants from the Horn of Africa to Gulf countries through Yemen fell by 73 per cent in 2020.

Thousands of migrants from the Horn of Africa returned from Yemen with the aid of smugglers after losing their income while others were unable to leave due to the closure of the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border.

Refugee camps

The pandemic worsened the conditions of those living in crowded refugee camps and in remote areas far from government health facilities, with irregular migrants and asylum seekers being left out of many Covid-19 testing, treatment and mitigation plans.

“They have faced a range of challenges, including poor or no access to testing and treatment, while at the same time experiencing difficulty adhering to physical and social distancing, making them particularly vulnerable to contracting Covid-19,” the report notes.

Some countries, however, included migrants such as refugees and asylum seekers in their Covid-19-related health measures, including vaccinations.

Intraregional migration of workers in Eastern and Southern Africa has increased over the years, driven by regional economic communities such as the East African Common Market Protocol, the Transhumance Protocol, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

In West and Central Africa, most migrants moved in search for work. However, the lockdown restricted movement, leading to nearly a 50 percent drop in migration at key transit points.

Sahel conflicts

People were displaced in the Central Sahel area — which encompasses Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali — over increased violence driven by factors like competition over natural resources, underdevelopment and poverty.

The violence over access to natural resources has especially been exploited by non-State armed groups in rural areas.

"Intercommunal violence in rural areas, including conflict between farmers and herders around transhumance, has also exacerbated an already difficult humanitarian situation, while the effects of climate change, such as unpredictable weather patterns and record hot periods, have worsened communal tensions and violence," the report notes.

Across Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, an estimated 1.9 million people were internally displaced by the end of 2020, while thousands died due to violence.

In Central and West Africa, climate change has contributed to prolonged droughts and unpredictable rainfall, impacting land-use patterns of farmers and herders and resulting in conflict and subsequent displacements.

"In 2020, more than two million people across 18 countries in the subregion were affected by storms and flooding, resulting in the destruction of livestock, land and goods, and contributing to the ongoing food insecurity," IOM said.

Heavy rainfall displaced 279,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and 116,000 in Cameroon.

Climate change has also worsened existing tensions among communities over reduced access to water and grazing land, especially in Nigeria's middle belt and the border between Burkina Faso and Mali.

"West and Central Africa have also experienced increased displacement due to violent extremism. In the Lake Chad basin, including Nigeria, Chad, the Niger and Cameroon, extremist groups such as Boko Haram have increased their attacks and kidnapping of civilians while recruiting more children," IOM said.

New extremist groups have emerged taking advantage of underlying ethnic animosities, poverty and the absence of State control in some rural areas, while others have expanded by establishing ties with regional or international groups, aided in part by smugglers and trafficking networks along porous borders.

Europe migration

Also, new coalitions of armed groups in Central Africa have devastated many people's lives. In the Central African Republic, one in four of the country's population was either a refugee or internally displaced.

North Africa continued being a major area of transit for migrants from other parts of Africa trying to make their way to Europe.

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, there was an increase in migrant arrivals in Europe on both the Central Mediterranean routes (mainly from Libya and Tunisia to Italy) and the Western Mediterranean routes (largely from Morocco and Algeria to Spain), with numbers growing from 41,000 to nearly 77,000.

"The harrowing journeys across both routes resulted in many deaths, and in 2020 alone, more than 1,500 migrants from West and North Africa heading to Spain, Malta and Italy were reported as dead or missing at sea," IOM said.

Many migrants rely on the services of smugglers to get them to and through North Africa to Europe. Those trying to get to Libya from countries in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, are mainly smuggled though Niger, Mali and Algeria, or through Sudan and Chad.

North Africa continues to be the origin and destination of many refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), with conflict and violence playing major roles in driving displacement.

In 2020, there were more than 278,000 IDPs in Libya. While a ceasefire signed in October 2020 has resulted in a reduction in hostilities, over a million people, continue to require humanitarian assistance.