Need for sustainable solutions to refugee crisis in East Africa

The refugee numbers are staggering. And they seem to rise every day. According to the UN, globally there are more than 60 million forcibly displaced persons. Of those, about 20 million are refugees, a 24 percent increase since 2000.

As World Refugee Day is marked today, there is an urgent need to come up with mechanisms that not only resolve conflict when it occurs, but also prevents it. This means political solutions.

In the meantime, organisations like Action Africa Help International (AAH-I), an African-led regional organisation based in Kenya, are working to support new models of humanitarian assistance that ensure displaced people are able to maintain their dignity and to some degree, also become self-reliant, as they struggle to adapt to their new situations, and to meet their daily needs.

It is also important that development partners rethink the way humanitarian funding is organised to ensure that there is financing available for work with the local communities that host refugees. These communities, which are often marginalised and vulnerable themselves, also need support to address their own development needs.

In the East African Community, nearly 25 years of conflict in what is now South Sudan and Somalia have been the biggest cause of humanitarian crisis. The political turmoil in Burundi that started last year has resulted in a further flow of over 250,000 refugees.

Of these, over 135,000 have fled to Tanzania, and the rest to Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda. An article in The Guardian newspaper, 10 April 2016, The world looks away as blood flows in Burundi, paints a tragic picture of almost inconceivable suffering in the country.

Combined, the EAC states of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are hosting close to 1.2 million refugees, providing a lifeline for these displaced men, women and children. As of May 2016, there are over 600,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Kenya alone, of whom more than 400,000 are refugees displaced by the insecurity in Somalia.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon emphasised the need to prevent conflict and seek peaceful resolution of strife when he addressed the first World Humanitarian Summit held last month in Istanbul, Turkey.

One cannot underestimate the complexity of the issues in countries such as Burundi, South Sudan and Somalia, but solutions can, and must, still be found. In December 2013, fighting broke out in Africa’s youngest state, South Sudan, leading to thousands of deaths and about 1.8 million displaced people.

Last year, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and partners brokered a peace deal between the State’s principal leaders. Under the deal, President Salva Kiir would remain in office while his rival, Dr Riek Machar, would return to the position of Vice President. Dr Machar returned to take up office in late April, this year.

IGAD, a bloc of eight countries, did not give up on the peace deal being signed, despite several unsuccessful attempts.

In the Burundi conflict, an umbrella body CNARED (known in English as the National Council for the Restoration of the Arusha Agreement and the Rule of Law) is spearheading peace talks. The peace efforts are led by the former President of Tanzania, Benjamin Mkapa. Although the mediation process faces challenges, it is important that mediators continue their efforts to bring the warring parties to the negotiating table.

Other factors such as famines and socio-economic factors such as poverty also cause people to move to other countries. There is a need for a broad solution by multiple players, such as States and the international community to address the genesis of hunger and poverty and find lasting solutions.

Once peace is restored and socio-economic factors are addressed, refugees can be repatriated. For instance, ten years ago, after the signing of the peace agreement, AAH-I supported the repatriation and resettlement of thousands of South Sudanese refugees who had been hosted in Uganda. Similarly, 6 years ago, the organisation successfully undertook the same exercise for thousands of Congolese refugees who had been hosted in Kala Refugee Camp in Kawambwa, Zambia.

While regional and international bodies work to bring about and maintain peace, refugee-hosting governments and humanitarian agencies have been providing life-saving assistance for refugees in East Africa. More resources are urgently required to ensure basic standards in health, education and livelihoods for refugees, other displaced people and hosting communities.

And yet, even as the need for resources for humanitarian crises increases in the region, the actual resources available are diminishing, partly because of the demand for resources to support refugees fleeing the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen and to cope with more and more natural disasters.

At the same time, more international commitment is required to meet the development needs of communities that host refugees, such as the people of Turkana County, the home of Kakuma Refugee Camp.

Prevailing models of humanitarian assistance established to respond to the humanitarian crisis in post-World War II in Europe are being challenged. Agencies, such as AAH-I, that work with refugee and host communities, can and must contribute to finding sustainable solutions.

They can support refugees acquire skills, start farming, and set up their own businesses, thus allowing them to support themselves and their families, which is a more sustainable approach. For instance, last year AAH-I, working with UNHCR, started a livelihood project in Kakuma Refugee Camp, where over 2,000 refugees are receiving support to support self-reliance initiatives.

These include 300 refugees trained on entrepreneurship and farming (including inputs such as drip irrigation equipment and seeds), and a similar number provided with start-up capital through a credit system in partnership with a local bank. Through this, many refugees have secured loans to start small businesses, such as eateries, farm input shops and hairdressing salons. This provides these refugees with some income to supplement the rations they receive from the World Food Programme, putting them on the road to self-reliance.

As Ban said during the World Humanitarian Summit: “We cannot allow despair and cynicism to rule the day.”

(Dr Kisia is the Executive Director, Action Africa Help International)

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