Africa’s refugees are on the move. They flee on foot, by car, by boat, within countries and across borders. In 2018, the continent again recorded large numbers of refugees, but the African Union (AU) has not managed to get to grips with the problem. It is the main topic at an AU summit in Addis Ababa, titled “Refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons: Towards durable solutions for forced displacement in Africa.” The problem should have been on the agenda for a long time, says Erol Yayboke, deputy director of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). However: “The fact that the AU is addressing this issue makes me optimistic. We Americans and Europeans believe that boatloads of refugees come to us, but that’s not the case. Most people stay in the region. And now it is up to the AU, because African problems must be solved by an African leadership, that is of great importance.”
The UN refugee agency UNHCR recorded a total of 30 million Africans in need on the continent in 2018. This figure includes almost 7.5 million refugees, 630,000 asylum-seekers, one million stateless persons and around half a million returned refugees. But the largest group is still made up of internally displaced persons (IDPs). Over 18 million Africans have had to leave their homes but are unable or unwilling to leave their country.
The deceptive hope of a speedy return
The situation is most critical in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Nearly 4.5 million Congolese were driven from their homes in 2017 but remained in nearby regions. A further 815,000 Congolese left the country in 2018: 30 percent went to Uganda, 10 percent to Rwanda and 9 percent to Tanzania. “This is partly because this country is too big for many to travel,” Yayboke told DW. There are rebellions in eastern Congo, unrest in the south and Ebola in the northeast. “There is no place where these people can turn.”
This trend can be observed not only in the DRC. In Somalia (2.7 million IDPs) and Nigeria (2 million IDPs), the number of people displaced in the country exceeds the number of people who have fled abroad. “Of all displaced people, the number of internally displaced people is the highest,” Yayboke said. “There are two reasons for this: Many of them hope to be able to return home sometime, which will sadly never happen for most of them. And the second phenomenon is that these people do not have the means to leave their country. That makes them the most vulnerable people because they have to live as internally displaced persons for long. They are the most threatened people.”