HARDLY a week goes by without reports of African migrants being rescued from rickety boats on treacherous seas enroute to Europe, or asylum seekers seeking to escape from inhospitable detention centres.
The allure of a better life elsewhere will continue to inform many dangerous crossings across choppy water bodies, predator-infested forests and sweltering deserts.
Those who make it—mainly to the West—discover that was only the first hurdle. They then have to contend with a raft of barriers, including an attendant and very real risk of being sent back. If they manage to jump over this, they often have to face the enormous challenge of finding work, and integrating into very different societies than what they knew.
The reality of Africa’s persistently stubborn conflicts also means hundreds of thousands of deeply traumatised refugees look for shelter at the neighbours’, an immediate need that often turns into years of near-normal life in other countries. Many often start their lives anew in the host country, as shown by the low numbers of returnees the UN’s refugee agency has handled in recent years, despite some semblance of peace in the origin nation.
A 55th nation
The numbers continue to make for disconcerting reading. Ethiopia is now the largest refugee-hosting country in Africa, edging ahead of Kenya, new data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) shows.
Ethiopia was home to some 629,718 refugees as at the end of July, the UNHCR said this week. Neighbour Kenya now accommodates some 575,334 documented refugees and asylum seekers.
The nine-month conflict in South Sudan accounts for the increased influx into Ethiopia, with some 188,000 South Sudanese having crossed borders since the beginning of this year. There are now 247,000 South Sudanese refugees in the Horn of Africa country, which also has 245,000 Somalis and 99,000 Eritreans.
UNHCR data released on the recent World Refugee Day showed 51.2 million individuals were forcibly displaced by the end of 2013, for reasons varying from persecution and conflict to generalised violence and human rights violations.
Globally, Pakistan hosts the largest number of refugees—1.6 million—followed by Iran and Lebanon. Developing countries host 86% of the world’s refugees, with sub-Saharan Africa hosting a quarter –or 2.8 million—of all world refugees. When all persons of concern are factored in—asylum seekers, Internally Displaced Persons, the stateless and others—are factored in, Africa becomes host to a total population of concern of 13.5 million.
If these refugees were to become a new 55th nation, they would be Africa’s 23rd most populous country.
But some African countries do not have any documented refugees according to UN data, with the added advantage that they are regularly ranked as among the most liveable on the continent, they may actually be easier to get to and assimilate into for those refugees with the means for a fresh start.
The kinship mindset, even during difficulties, is one of the standout things about Africa. Rarely are you left on your own, as in many Western countries.
The data shows five African countries had the least possible number of refugees as at the end of 2013. The common factor is that they are all islands, bringing in the aspect of geography, but as risky sea crossings have shown, this is hardly an impediment for many.
By contrast, the top refugee hosting nations in Africa are much more accessible and neighbour the conflict areas, with Ethiopia, already one of Africa’s most populous countries, swelling its numbers some more:
The top origin African nations for these refugees have been in eastern and the Horn of Africa, with Africa’s newest nation South Sudan in particular having conflagrated this year. Eritrea is also one of the most underreported refugee source nations, but residents of this country are among the most rescued migrants on their way to Europe.
The UNCHR in 2013 also protected Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), the highest numbers of which are in six countries:
The agency has also managed to resettle an estimated 168,500 refugees, including 68,400 from DRC, 36,100 from Somalia and 20,000 Ivorians. This is however still a trickle, and more efforts will be needed together with governments to take refugees back home in a dignified and internationally accepted manner.
Until then, Africa can also be home for many of them.