Crises leave Africa with little to celebrate on World Refugee Day

Persecution of homosexuals creates new refugee category, adding to already sobering numbers that show an actual increase on the continent.

Every year on June 20 humanitarian organisations across the globe celebrate World Refugee Day. This day, established by the United Nations, has been set aside to honour the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homes under the threat of persecution, conflict and violence. 

Unfortunately, there is nothing to celebrate this year as it is the third consecutive year that the number of refugees in Africa has increased. According to statistics from the UN Refugee agency (UNHCR), the number of refugees and asylum-seekers in the region grew from some 3.3 million at the start of 2013 to 3.4 million at the end of 2013 – this meant that over 25% of the world’s refugees live in Africa. 

For UNHCR, the 2014 total requirements needed to assist these refugees is $1.89billion – more than a small African nation’s GDP. Expenditure in 2013 reached $972.1 million, an increase of some $11 million from 2012. The countries with the highest allocated budgets were expectedly the countries that hosted the highest number of refugees, namely Kenya (565,000), Ethiopia (376,000) and Chad (374,000). 

The African country supplying the highest number of refugees is Somalia. At one million Somali refugees, it is the second main country of origin, after Afghanistan. 

The spike in refugee numbers can be attributed to outbreaks of violence across the continent in late 2012 and 2013, and UNHCR identified the most critical displacement situations as the eastern areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the Central African Republic and South Sudan. 

The volatile security situation due to ongoing threats by Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram in the three northern states of Nigeria has also contributed to the refugee crisis. Thousands of people have been internally displaced and approximately 10,000 have crossed the border into Niger. 

Other documented movements in 2014 include; Malians who escaped to Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger; refugees from eastern Congo who fled into Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda; Central African refugees driven into neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and the DRC; and Sudanese from Darfur forced to flee to Chad. 

Unusual movements
Over the past year unusual refugee movements were also recorded, there was cross-continental migration with 131,700 Syrian refugees registering in Egypt. North Africa also experienced a high incidence of immigration, more than 27,300 people left Libya in 2013, compared to 5,000 in 2012. Some 9,200 also departed from Egypt, and more than 900 left Tunisia. 

In fact the sub-region which has experienced the least amount of migration, and with the most politically stable environment, is southern Africa. Over the past year it documented 131,300 refugees. This is in stark contrast to the Eastern and Horn region (UNHCR includes, Chad, Djibouti and Sudan in this list) which has 1.6 million refugees mostly in Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan and Uganda. 

It is expected that the political conflicts, and threats posed by terrorism, will continue to cause an increase in refugees across Africa. There are however newer issues which also result in refugees. 

Over the past year, Uganda and Nigeria attracted international attention when they decided to tighten laws criminalising homosexuality. But they aren’t the only ones: eight out of 54 countries in Africa have formally criminalised same-sex activity in some form, with penalties ranging from fines and imprisonments to death; there are now lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) refugees. 

Progressive country
Fortunately for LGBTI refugees, even though the UN Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention) does not include gender and sexual orientation on grounds for asylum under the Refugee Convention, South Africa does. Since the start of 2014, Passop (People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty), an organisation that does advocacy in South Africa for LBGTI issues, has received approximately 200 requests for assistance this year. This is a huge increase from last year which documented the same number for the whole of 2013. 

This influx of refugees is because South Africa is a progressive country that grants refugee status on the basis of sexual orientation. In the late 1990s, South Africa collaborated with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to enact migrant-friendly immigration and asylum laws. These laws specified that persecution or fear of persecution based on gender or sexual orientation qualify for refugee status. 

For now, the numbers of LGBTI are still low, however as these individuals gain the confidence to migrate to more tolerant countries and as countries crackdown on this community, the numbers will rise, adding to the already immense African refugee burden.


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