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Refugees in Africa faced bitter disappointments in 2016

Burundian refugees wait at the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Kagunga village in Kigoma region, western Tanzania. Reuters/Stringer

This year, 471,000 refugees from the Central African Republic (CAR) voted in presidential elections. They voted even though most of them live in exile in Cameroon, the Republic of the Congo and Chad, having fled an ongoing civil war which began in 2012.

Their participation reflects a collective determination to rebuild their country. Sadly, after a year filled with hopes of change, conflict has escalated in their country again.

This was an experience repeated throughout the continent this year. There was great hope that the number of Africa’s asylum-seekers and refugees would be reduced and great ambitions to find a durable and proper solution for those displaced due to persecution. But for many all that was left by year-end was bitter disappointment.

Huge numbers

Five African countries made the list of the top 10 major refugee-hosting countries in the world this year. Ethiopia was the highest, followed by Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Chad. By the end of 2015 African countries (excluding northern Africa) hosted 4,413 500 refugees.

The biggest drivers of these high numbers were conflict, political persecution and general instability.

The numbers are so high that Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has called for more help for countries hosting large numbers of refugees. All are overburdened by a lack of space and financial support.

There were several African countries that faced particularly challenging refugee issues in 2016.

South Sudan:

There was growing violence and insecurity throughout South Sudan in 2016.

Fighting between armed groups and government soldiers continued, mainly near Yambio, about 300km west of Juba. With this came increases in crime, attacks on government property, looting of civilian homes and sexual assaults reportedly by armed youth.

This drove South Sudanese mainly to Sudan and Uganda.

But people are fleeing from Sudan too. Nearly 250,000 Sudanese refugees have fled to South Sudan since the start of war in the Nuba mountains in 2011.

The country that has felt the brunt of this is Uganda. It already has severely strained resources. Its refugee programme is massively funded by the UNHCR with annual spending of about US$ 200 million dollars. With more than 300,000 South Sudanese refugees seeking asylum in Uganda this year, the UNHCR announced it was cutting food rations for those who had arrived before July 2015. This is an attempt to reallocate funds to new arrivals.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC):

Conflict in the DRC is concentrated in the east of the country. Waves of violence by Mai Mai militias and rebel groups since November 2015 have forced thousands of Congolese to flee.


The situation in Mozambique suddenly worsened at the beginning of the year. This followed clashes between the government and the opposition forces of RENAMO.

People fled to Malawi. From mid-December 2015 to February 2016 more than 6,000 Mozambicans arrived in Malawi. Today Malawi gives shelter to more than 25,000 asylum-seekers and refugees. Most are settled in Dzaleka camp, 35 kms from Lilongwe. Resources to assist new refugees are very limited.


The presence of Nigeria’s militant Islamist group Boko Haram in the North East of the country has created huge instability: bombings, assassinations and abductions. The situation did not improve enough this year to allow people to return safely.

More than two million people have been displaced since 2014. 169,000 have sought shelter with communities in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

Some refugees have sought to return home. But they’ve faced a lack of shelter, economic challenges and food shortages.


Since President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would run for a third term in April 2015 the situation in Burundi has deteriorated. It sparked violence in the country and led to more than 300,000 Burundians seeking asylum in the DRC, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

This has been heavily taxing on the host countries. The UNHCR requested $175 million for the Burundi humanitarian response in 2016. To date they have received only $4.7 million, or about 3% of what they asked for.


After Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis, Eritreans were the fourth most common group of refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in 2015.

In a bid to stem the risky crossings Grandi met Eritreans at Hitsats camp, one of four hosting Eritreans in the country’s northern highlands. Their presence has caused huge strain given that Ethiopia hosts the largest refugee population in Africa.


In 2016 Kenya decided to close Dadaab camp – home to more than 320,000 Somali refugees – for economic, environmental and security reasons.

International organisations have been involved in trying to facilitate the return of Somalis to their home country. The task is immense. There are increasing claims that the repatriation taking place is not “voluntary”. There are also concerns over the refugees’ safety due to ongoing insecurity in Somalia. Other obstacles to reintegration include limited personal connections to the country and a lack of access to land.

Positive steps

While the challenges are great, 2016 did also have moments of spontaneous and genuine efforts to support the continent’s refugees – on both a large and a small scale.

Congolese communities along the Ubangi River offered shelter and support to refugees from the CAR.

There were also some large-scale initiatives and successes. For example, 41,000 former refugees returned to Mali after a peace agreement was signed in 2015 between the government and armed rebel groups.

The UNHCR should also be commended for its role throughout 2016. The organisation was relentless in looking for funds to end the suffering of Nigerian, CAR and South Sudanese refugees.

The organisation also worked tirelessly to bring its resources to areas in Africa where situations were becoming more desperate. For instance, it created a Protection Desk in South Sudan. These are invaluable assets which identify the most vulnerable individuals and devise a response specific to their needs.

And in September the UN General Assembly adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants. This is a huge step that expresses the political will of world leaders to protect the rights of refugees and migrants, and to share responsibility.

Finally, I would like to advance a modest suggestion to anyone working with the “continuous refugee crisis’ in Africa. In the words of Emmanuel Kant:

Hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he arrives in the land of another because [all men have] common possession of the surface of the earth.

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