African meeting focuses on protracted refugee situations
GENEVA - African delegations attending a one-day meeting on protracted refugee situations in Africa reiterated their commitment to helping the uprooted but urged more international help in tackling the root causes of displacement.
In a summary of the meeting, representatives from some 50 African nations also expressed concern over the emerging culture of impunity among some "refugee-exporting" nations in Africa and said more attention needed to be given to conflict prevention to avert new outflows.
In his opening remarks at the meeting, which followed a two-day ministerial meeting of signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers solicited the support of African governments in looking for "new impetus" in handling refugee issues in Africa. "We cannot go on with business as usual," Lubbers said. "We have to speak together and see what to do about protracted refugee situations in Africa and how we can improve the protection regime."
Lubbers told the meeting that in the absence of voluntary return home, refugees still deserve to live meaningful lives. "We have to increase local opportunities, on top of what we are already doing, so that refugees become self-sufficient and are empowered with sufficient skills to become useful members of local communities," he said. "We therefore have to re-emphasise the importance of education and other self-reliance strategies." Lubbers added that what UNHCR was proposing was a long-term endeavour but that "work must start now in order to achieve the good results."
Government representatives at the meeting expressed a willingness to do more for refugees, but noted that they were seriously hampered by a lack of resources. This was exacerbated by the challenges posed by large-scale refugee influxes or mixed flows of refugees and economic migrants. There was, therefore, a need for more burden-sharing by cash donor countries to support refugee-hosting nations. Government delegations also lamented rising unemployment rates in their own countries, saying it was not an option for many governments to allow refugees to work unless "we want to walk the path of domestic unrest."
A number of delegations expressed fears that if emphasis was placed on local integration, particularly in protracted situations, refugees would have little incentive to return home from countries of asylum. Furthermore, they added, a focus on improving opportunities in countries of asylum would not encourage so-called refugee-exporting countries to look for solutions.
Several delegations supported UNHCR's proposal for the eventual adoption of an Organisation of African Unity (OAU) resolution on the separation of armed elements from civilian refugee populations. But they expressed concern that it was still unclear who should then care for armed groups once they had been separated from civilians. UNHCR's Director of the Division of International Protection, Ms. Erika Feller, explained to the meeting that UNHCR's mandate was limited to the care of civilians and it could not take responsibility for separated armed groups. She said the care of these groups remained the responsibility of host nations.
In his concluding remarks, Lubbers acknowledged the scarce resources available to many African nations that host refugees and pledged UNHCR's help in garnering more donor support for programmes aimed at easing the burden in protracted situations.