Categorized | Africa

Out of the Frying Pan: Refugees in Africa

Refugee camp in Dadaab

Refugee camp in Dadaab

Pegida leader Lutz Bachmann, in a incredibly ironic twist on the idea of poacher turned gamekeeper, has been forced to seek refuge on the Spanish island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands because he and his wife were being “persecuted” in their native Dresden. Bachmann, of course, is the far right leader of the Patriotic Movement against the Islamization of the Occident (Pegida) and has variously labelled the refugees making their way to Europe as “cattle” “trash” and “scum.” The “persecution” he is referring to might be a district court fining him €9,600 after finding him guilty of inciting hatred.

While the authorities may not approve of Bachmann’s polemics, a disturbingly significant subsection of the population do. At one point, Bachmann’s organization was drawing tens of thousands of people onto the streets of Dresden in protest and sparked offshoots all over Germany.

Like Bachmann’s claims of persecution, the rumors he helped stoke – that the world’s refugees are taking over Europe – are greatly exaggerated. While the European Union shudders at the impact those fleeing Syria’s war and other regional conflicts are having on the integrity of the bloc, Africa is busy trying to safeguard the millions displaced by its long running conflict. According to Oxfam, sub-Saharan Africa is now home to almost 30% of the 41 million people who are “internally displaced” by conflict and violence around the world. The countries most directly implicated in Africa’s major refugee crises are Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti – a list that includes some of the world’s most corrupt and dictatorial regimes.

In Kenya, Ben Rawlence describes how the country is fulfilling the bare minimum of its obligations to the largely Somalian refugees in its huge Dadaab camp by giving them “a safe space within its borders,” even as “the restrictions on work and freedom of movement are actually psychological as well because the refugees are then unable to hope plan or make a life for the future.” Kenya is now making it increasingly clear that it doesn’t want those refugees within its borders at all. In May, the Kenyan government announced that it would be closing the Dadaab camp, ostensibly because it has been infiltrated by terrorists from al-Shabaab. Kenya’s foreign minister Amina Mohamed also argued that Kenya could no longer bear the cost of so many refugees, arguing that “the burden our country has continued to endure remains disproportionate to the support received.”

Nairobi is eager to unburden itself of these refugees, to the extent that Human Rights Watch has claimed Kenya is not giving the refugees a real choice between being repatriated or staying. The UN’s refugee arm, the UNHCR, is also accused of failing to give those leaving the camp accurate information about security conditions in Somalia, meaning they could be at significant risk on their return to the country. Ban Ki-moon, for his part, essentially gave the government the green light to go ahead with the camp’s closure after meeting with Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta in June.

Uganda is arguably rather more welcoming to those seeking shelter on its soil. According to the UNHCR, the country is even one of the most favorable environments in the world for refugees. Rather than being sequestered away in cramped and unsanitary camps, refugees in the country can set up businesses, work for others, and move freely around the country. Even so, all is not entirely rosy. The conflict in South Sudan has sparked a new influx of refugees into Uganda, which in turn has led to Ugandan government, the UN refugee agency, and the World Food Program cutting rations in half for people who arrived as refugees more than a year ago. Unsurprisingly, this has led to widespread hardship. Of course, the mere presence of so many refugees in the country enables the corrupt President Museveni to extract more resources from the international community and claim the moral upper hand in the process.

Ethiopia is faring little better. The ongoing political crisis that has pit Addis Ababa against Oromo and Amhara, and the government crackdown, has cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the brutality of a key Western ally. U.S. congressional representative Chris Smith, who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs’ subcommittee on Africa, has lambasted the country as an “abomination” for torturing its own citizens while Leslie Lefkow, Human Rights Watch Deputy Africa Director, has noted the “blatant disregard for human life” shown by Ethiopian security forces acting on behalf of the ruling Tigrean People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Given the context, it is hard to be optimistic about the new European pledge to create 100,000 jobs for Ethiopia’s 700,000 refugees.

In Djibouti, whose strategic location happens to place it directly between Ethiopia and Yemen, President Ismaïl Guelleh has his country in a stranglehold and shows no sign of wishing to relinquish control. The country hosts some 36,000 refugees, most fleeing the Yemeni war. However, while the Guelleh family swims in funds from the global powers renting space and basing rights from his government, refugees and rural locals alike suffer from a severe lack of water, and thousands actually chose to return to Yemen. This is a nation which, according to Abdourahman Boreh, head of external relations for the opposition Union pour le Salut National – and now a refugee himself after calling on the president to relinquish the idea of standing for yet another term – is “one of the most strategic countries in the world essentially run by one man, with huge revenues from foreign armies and the port, yet the people lack running water.”

Wherever those fleeing Africa’s conflicts choose to seek shelter, there is always the specter of the host country forcing them to flee again. Instead of wondering why so many African refugees are trying to reach Europe, we should acknowledge how bad conditions must be for them to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean in hopes of something better. On their continent, the choices they face are often little better than jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.

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About Tom Wirth

Originally from Düsseldorf, Tom is a recent graduate in International Affairs from St.Gallen (with a focus on Africa), and is an aspiring foreign policy analyst in preparation for a PhD in Conflict Analysis.

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