Why we need to stay the course in supporting refugees

Sunday June 16 2024
EA S. Sudan learning

Pupils learn at a camp for displaced children from South Sudan in Ofua, Uganda. FILE | AFP


Picture this – a violent conflict has broken out in a neighbouring country, people are arriving in large numbers at a border after running for their lives, grabbing whatever they could take with them. What do you see on the news? Most likely it is a refugee camp with crowds of people who are still in a state of shock after their whole lives have been upended.

Often in a major displacement crisis, one of the first steps taken is to establish a refugee camp. The aim is to ensure that lifesaving assistance is provided quickly to those in need including temporary accommodations, food, water, sanitation and healthcare. The hope is that whatever conflict or situation people are fleeing will resolve quickly and people can return home.

Unfortunately, in the East and Horn of Africa and Great Lakes region, with 5.3 million refugees, this only occurs rarely.

At the moment, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHRC) is only able to promote refugee returns to Burundi, given the prevailing peace and security environments in other home countries of refugees.

In fact, there are refugee camps in several countries in the region that were established as far back as 30 to 40 years ago. This means there are generations of people who have been born and raised in refugee camps, restricting opportunities and futures. This has to change.

We have to recognise that people who have been forced to flee do not arrive to the new communities empty-handed even if they left all their material belongings behind. They are arriving with skills, talents and experiences that should be harnessed. It will not only help them rebuild their lives but also strengthen the economies, services and peaceful coexistence in the host communities where they are arriving.


We should work toward not establishing refugee camps again. Reflecting on the past year, there is no question it has been a difficult one. The war in Sudan continues to rage on, causing one of the largest displacements in recent memory – nearly 10 million people uprooted in a span of 14 months. The continued impact of climate change has now resulted in severe flooding, impacting hundreds of thousands of people, including the forcibly displaced.

Severely overstretched humanitarian funding is leading to decrease in food assistance, limited availability of essential services and insufficient protection responses. These are extremely challenging situations to address, and it would be easy to become completely disheartened. But we cannot despair, because also all around us, there are signs that show there is continued solidarity for refugees in Africa.

At the Global Refugee Forum held last December, a record number of 116 pledges were made by host governments, public and private sector partners, development organisations and academic institutions aimed at supporting refugees across this region. On several of them, progress is being made.

For example, in Ethiopia, refugee ID cards are already being issued, meaning that refugees can now access services like obtaining a SIM card and registering a business. Funding for this initiative was supported by the World Bank’s ID for Development initiative with more financing from the Bank’s Window for Hosts and Refugees.

In Kenya, the Shirika Plan and transformation of refugee camps into municipalities continue to advance, thanks to efforts by the government and all stakeholders.

Read: How refugees became weapons in Congo conflict

Thousands of new refugees are welcomed every day in Uganda, already the largest refugee host on the continent; and the country continues to maintain its progressive policies towards refugees.

Rwanda and Djibouti are advancing their inclusion policies, including in relation to education, social protection and health insurance.

Thanks to the African Development Bank’s support, in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda, representatives from all sectors have come together to find ways to support initiatives that will include refugees and other forcibly displaced populations, economically.

This means encouraging private sector investments in refugee-hosting areas that will boost income generation, improve self-reliance and grow economies.

Through the Intergovernmental Authority in Development’s support platform, there have been advances in policies to support refugee inclusion. Progress is also being made with the East African Community’s Regional Refugee Management Policy to ensure harmonised regional approaches that which will support access to quality asylum processes and digital identity documents.

This demonstrates that a change in the way refugees are received is absolutely possible if we work together. We can and should invest in solutions from the start of a humanitarian crisis. It makes refugees less dependent on international aid.

While it goes without saying the best solution to displacement would be for peace to prevail, unfortunately, peace has been the most elusive.

Until then, countries across this region are showing support for our African brothers and sisters forced to flee.

It is possible.

Dr Mamadou Dian Balde is a lawyer, currently serving as the regional director for UNHCR and the Regional Refugee Coordinator for the Sudan Situation.