African conflicts unresolved, host countries should improve asylum - UNHCR
GENEVA, Sept 25 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency called on African countries to look into improving asylum for refugees on their territories, saying the many unresolved conflicts in Africa greatly reduce the chances for refugees to return home. Speaking at an annual meeting with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), UNHCR's Africa Director Kolude Doherty said that hundreds of thousands of refugees, particularly in Africa, still have no immediate prospects for a lasting resolution of their plight.
"It is in this context that we may need to be more innovative and seek to redirect some of our focus on asylum," he said. "While not losing sight of our ultimate aim of helping refugees to realise a durable solution to their problems, there is much scope for refocusing our attention on the quality of asylum, the need to empower refugees to become self-reliant, and community development."
In 2000, nearly 280,000 refugees returned home to various countries in Africa. At the beginning of 2001, 3.6 million refugees remained on the continent, many of them living as refugees for years.
Doherty suggested UNHCR and its partners work to get refugee issues included in countries' national development plans to ensure refugees the attention they deserve. He said governments should be encouraged to allow refugees more freedom of movement to enable them to access local employment markets, and should also rethink land policies with a possibility to lease land to refugees.
Because of the difficult conditions in asylum countries, refugees sometimes choose to return home despite unsafe conditions, according to NGOs. Those who do go home face real challenges in re-integrating into their communities, because the US$ 50 grant each returnee receives is unrealistic, they said. NGOs urged the international community, particularly development agencies, to give more help to returning refugees.
Doherty also assured the NGOs that UNHCR would not leave a vacuum when it closes offices in seven countries, mostly in West Africa, between now and the end of the year. UNHCR had been obliged to close these offices due to serious funding constraints over the last three years, but had taken steps to ensure that governments within the affected countries and UNHCR's regional offices were able to meet the needs of remaining groups of refugees. In many of the affected countries, there are less than 1,000 registered refugees.
"UNHCR is shrinking, and there is no scope at the moment for additional resources. There are new situations emerging elsewhere in Africa, and we have had to switch resources," he said.
At the end of a global review of its operations early this year, UNHCR decided to close its offices in Niger, Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, Gambia and Cameroon by the end of 2001, and had began to scale back on various refugee programmes in many parts of the continent by the end of August this year.