- Sustained reforms and changes in Sudan and Ethiopia, a settlement of the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and the shaky but improved chances of a unity government in South Sudan have huge potential to unlock the refugee crises and pave the way for sustainable solutions.
- There is also significant political will among the member states of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to change the ways that assistance is provided to displacement-affected areas.
The Horn of Africa is at the epicentre of some of the largest and longest-running refugee and internally displaced persons crises in the world.
Last year, the United Nations Refugee Agency, estimated that there were more than 14 million persons of concern (including refugees, returnees, stateless people, internally displaced persons and asylum-seekers) in the region. This represents more than 70 per cent of all displaced people in Africa, and more than one-fifth globally.
Over the past three decades the regional response to refugee crises has been characterised by an absence of political will and coherent policies to bring about effective collective action. This has fomented discontent within refugee communities that feel trapped in a legal limbo, and caused resentment between them and their hosts. But the situation is not hopeless.
For the first time in a generation, there are genuine grounds for cautious optimism. Overall prospects for peace are improving across the wider Horn. Sustained reforms and changes in Sudan and Ethiopia, a settlement of the border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and the shaky but improved chances of a unity government in South Sudan have huge potential to unlock the refugee crises and pave the way for sustainable solutions. There is also significant political will among the member states of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) to change the ways that assistance is provided to displacement-affected areas.
Simultaneously, a more collaborative humanitarian, development and peace approach is being promoted by the major donors, the UN agencies, the Red Cross and World Bank as well as various relevant NGOs, in partnership with governments and relevant regional entities.
A Research and Evidence Facility study published last week analyses the ways in which national commitments are being implemented in Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda. It considers the role that IGAD has played in bringing together the different countries to ensure that displacement responses remain at the top of the political agenda.
The model being implemented as part of the global Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) puts in place a “whole of society” approach to supporting communities affected by displacement. In this region, inspiration for the model is drawn in large part from the experience of Uganda.
Uganda has one of the most progressive refugee protection policies in the world. Refugees are afforded relative freedom of movement, the right to work, to establish businesses, access public services, and obtain identity cards as well as birth, marriage, and education certificates. Refugee families in gazetted settlements have been allocated small plots of farmland. This practice, however, is now jeopardised by the number of new arrivals in recent years.
Uganda’s progressive path was revived in March 2017 by IGAD, which brought its members together in Nairobi to agree on a compact solution to the Somali refugee situation. The Nairobi Declaration was subsequently expanded to encompass all refugees in the region. Member states committed to developing policies on building self-reliance in areas affected by displacement, and to promote inclusion and access for all to essential services and livelihood opportunities. The Djibouti Declaration on Education followed in December 2017 and the Kampala Declaration on Jobs and Livelihoods in March last year. Follow-up meetings have put the region on a firmer course towards improving the policy environment for refugees and institutionalising reforms, as well as fostering private sector engagement and health.
Two years since the Nairobi Declaration, countries have committed to ensuring that refugees have access to national education systems; progress has also been made in developing legal pathways for refugees’ right to work; while assistance is being targeted to areas affected by displacement rather than to individual categories of people.
However, challenges abound. The pace of implementation varies, with some states still far behind on fulfilling key commitments. The study also found instances of misconceptions and inadequate understanding of CRRF aims, as well as a poor grasp of the details of the approach. In some states, amendments to laws governing refugees have stalled in parliament, affecting implementation at the local level.
But there is hope that in the coming months states in the Horn will take additional concrete steps in priority areas: Improvements in education inclusion and quality; protection of refugees’ rights (especially with respect to documentation, access to services and mobility); participation of civil society, refugees and host communities in implementing and monitoring CRRF activities at the local level; completing legislative and policy reforms on jobs and livelihoods and promoting private sector engagement.
The conditions for voluntary and sustainable repatriation remain a challenge across the region, which means that other solutions — in particular promoting self-reliance for refugees while they await the possibility of return — need to be pursued.
In keeping refugee assistance at the top of the agenda, IGAD wields considerable political and diplomatic clout. Its role both as political broker and its coordination and technical support functions are unique and indispensable in creating policy convergence and harmonisation. The political ‘peer pressure’ that IGAD exerts through its regional diplomacy remains vital to mobilising political attention and commitment for action on displacement issues. The challenge now is to ensure that the policy and legal changes will be translated into concrete action on the ground. The IGAD Support Platform, which was launched at the Global Refugee Forum last December, will help it to continue to provide crucial technical and political support to the regional refugee response processes.
A policy of enhanced investment in the general welfare of communities affected by displacement is not just a moral or legal obligation but a sensible pragmatic choice. It helps to regularise refugees’ legal status and improve their general wellbeing.
It allows them greater mobility and autonomy to build a self-reliant and dignified life. It also promotes the welfare of host communities and others with whom refugees live. In short, it creates a virtuous circle; one that fosters harmony within and across borders, creates real social capital and lays a solid “soft power” foundation that states can leverage in the future to construct a cross-section of mutually-beneficial networks and linkages.