With new conflicts emerging and some old ones festering, East and Central Africa’s refugee burden is set to increase, both for source and host countries.
The region’s reputation as a near-permanent theatre of conflict has only made matters worse, with the recent conflagration in South Sudan already materially adding to the numbers.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that nearly 1.8 million refugees and three million internally displaced people are in need of help in East Africa and the Horn of Africa.
The figure is even higher for Central Africa and the Great Lakes region, at 6.3 million, with a contribution from Burundi and the perennially volatile Democratic Republic of Congo.
Other regions have fairly small numbers, perhaps a testament to their relative stability, with West Africa hosting some 350,000 refugees and southern Africa 134,000.
Kenya retains its position as the leading refugee-hosting country in Africa, with over 550,000 people finding temporary shelter within its borders, according to data from the UNHCR. Ethiopia comes close with 400,000.
Kenya also hosts Dadaab, a poster refugee camp, which largely plays home to escapees from the long running war in Somalia. The site is acknowledged as the largest such settlement in the world.
While the biggest trigger for displacement in the region has remained the conflict in Somalia, the latest movements in the region are attributable to action in two main theatres: South Sudan and Central African Republic.
There have also been some returns recently, albeit limited; notably Somalis going back at the prospect of sustainable peace in the war-weary motherland, and Rwandans retracing their steps home after being expelled by Tanzania, following a rather mean patch in the diplomatic relations between the two countries.
“South Sudanese continue to cross the border into Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan. Over 140,000 have crossed to the four neighbours since mid-December and the number could rise to 320,000 by the end of the year,” the UNHCR says in a briefing document.
The situation in South Sudan exacerbates the overall refugee situation in that country which was already dire as a result of past displacement due to conflicts in South Kordofan and Blue Nile States, as well as parts of Darfur.
Another flashpoint is Eastern DR Congo where a long-dormant rebel group the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) seems to have found a new life, sending 66,000 refugees across the border into south-western Uganda.
Volatility in the Central African Republic, which is just coming out of another bout of religious bloodletting, has contributed over 100,000 refugees to the pool.
Ethiopia, which has the third largest refugee population in Africa, after Chad and Kenya, has as its source countries mainly Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Ethiopia itself.
Returns, mostly by Somali and Rwandan refugees, have brought a new dynamic into the refugee situation in the region.
In Kenya, for instance, there have been accusations of human rights violations by State agents in the ongoing effort to have as many Somali refugees as possible return home. Ditto the relocation of Rwandans from Tanzania’s Kagera region.
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The region is yet to be hit by the spectre of economic refugees. This is the trend in southern Africa, where most of the escapees are running away from penury into countries that are perceived as “better endowed.”
Many of these are Zimbabweans seeking opportunities down South, a factor that has created a new challenge: xenophobia among the host communities.