The Rise of Displacement in Africa
There are a record number of ongoing conflicts in Africa, pushing millions of people out of their homes. New conflicts are displacing new people while long-standing wars and refugee crises go unresolved. If responses to war and displacement do not improve, mounting problems will destabilize the region further.
Today one out of every 57 people in Africa is displaced. The inability to resolve old conflicts and prevent new ones from breaking out have forced unprecedented numbers to flee their homes. While Africa is justifiably lauded for its progressive policies for displaced people, the growing numbers of people uprooted from war, violence, or persecution point to a collective failure to find a solution to the problem of forced displacement.
Less than 20 percent of the world’s population is African, but more than 30 percent of the world’s displaced people are in Africa. There are 14.7 million internally displaced people (35 percent of the world’s total) and 7.4 million refugees from Africa (nearly 30 percent of the global amount). Seven of the ten largest sources of refugees are African countries and five of the ten countries with the highest proportion of refugees are on the continent.
The uptick of conflicts in the last several years is generating a further exodus. The total number of intrastate conflicts in Africa, combining both minor and major wars, set annual records in the last three years (although there were higher numbers of major conflicts alone in the late 1980s and 1990s). Full-blown civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, and Somalia, and persistent violence in South Sudan, Mali, Libya, and other locations continue. There was also a huge jump in the number of non-state conflicts between warring parties that are not government forces—a 43 percent increase since 2016—with rapid escalations in the Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo. And the prospects for finding lasting and peaceful endings are limited at best.
Last year was particularly bad. Around half of those displaced by conflict in 2017 were in Africa, with more than 1.3 million Africans fleeing their homes to another country. New and renewed fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo caused a spike in displacement to 2.2 million people, double the 2016 figure. With the recent surge adding to the totals of people still unable to return home after decades of instability, more than 5 million Congolese are currently displaced.
The situation was also dire in South Sudan. More than 1 million refugees fled abroad, mostly to Uganda, Sudan, and other neighbors. It was the largest increase in refugees in the world last year. While Somalia remains one of the other leading sources of refugees, the number actually fell slightly in 2017. But ongoing turmoil, associated humanitarian emergencies, and spreading tensions between Puntland and Somaliland guarantee the danger of additional displacement will remain high.
Conflict-induced displacement plague other countries as well. While violence in Sudan rarely makes international headlines these days, the country remains one of the biggest sources of refugees and the numbers increased last year. Mounting insecurity caused a tenfold increase in displacement in the Central African Republic and clashes with Boko Haram in northern Nigeria continue to push people out of their homes, threatening to engulf its neighbors—Cameroon, Niger, and Chad—in a wider, intractable crisis.
The number of wars is unlikely to fall markedly in the immediate future. While there have been positive signs in places like Ethiopia and Eritrea, ominous signs are noticeable elsewhere. Looming elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo could spark more killings instead of furthering democracy, violence could escalate in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Zimbabwe, or Burundi, and jihadists and other non-state armed groups threaten deadlier insurgencies in Mali and its neighbors in the Sahel, Somalia, the Lake Chad Basin, Libya, and even Mozambique. Deteriorating security situations will push more people out of their homes and an influx of refugees can destabilize host regions.
It should go without saying that reducing the incidence of violence would cut the risk of displacement, so more should be done to end wars and avert new conflicts. But more can also be done to reduce the numbers of internally displaced people and refugees and improve their circumstances. While each situation is unique and requires targeted, context-specific response plans, there are three overarching areas that should receive greater attention.
First, more resources need to be devoted to protracted refugee situations. The majority of the world’s refugees are living in exile for more than five years and more than half of the protracted situations are in Africa. Several persist for decades, including ones lasting over 40 years for Burundian refugees living in Tanzania and people from Western Sahara in Algeria. Somali refugees have also lived abroad for a quarter of a century in Kenya and outside of the continent in Yemen.
These protracted crises rarely receive much attention. Human outflows from Syria, Afghanistan, and Myanmar soak up the focus of global audiences and policymakers. Even the severity of the worsening violence in the Congo last year wasn’t enough to generate adequate resources as the emergency response plan was woefully underfunded. But it does not need to be a competition over a small pool of funds—more money and time need to be found.
Protracted refugee situations fall down the list of international priorities. The crises are less acute and often considered to be too difficult to solve. More time, however, needs to be dedicated to enabling these refugees to safely return home and much more can be done to resettle or integrate them into the local economies and societies. Properly addressing these situations can limit the chances of the same wars re-erupting in the future and enhance stability in the countries currently hosting the groups.
Second, with large populations unable to return home for years, many children will grow up abroad or displaced in their own country. Africa is relatively young compared to other regions and the same is true for its refugee populations. Around one in two refugees around the world is a child (up noticeably in the last 10 years), but this proportion is even higher across Africa. Greater than 60 percent of the refugee populations in Burkina Faso, Chad, the Congo Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and Uganda are children.
Education needs to be emphasized. While responses to ongoing emergencies understandably prioritize basic needs (food, water, and shelter), displacements are unfortunately unlikely to end soon. The expertise and experience of long-term development specialists, particularly in regard to education, need to be incorporated into response plans. Children must receive high-quality schooling without major gaps in teaching.
Losing years of schooling will harm a child’s development and damage her future ability to earn a living and help rebuild her country once the fighting ends. Children need to have a proper education to get jobs in their home countries or in new locations. Given Africa’s youthful population, it will already be extremely difficult for many young adults to find employment opportunities. Without essential language, math, and science skills, displaced youth will be at an even greater disadvantage.
Third, local populations—both governments and communities—should take the lead in creating and implementing humanitarian and development plans whenever possible, but the international community needs to provide sufficient funds for good ideas and deliver outside pressure against unwise policies. Despite widespread fears of asylum seekers in Europe, most people displaced in Africa do not travel beyond the continent’s shores. Internally displaced people remain within their own countries and the vast majority of refugees are hosted in neighboring states.
All situations are unique and no one understands the distinct needs better than the people directly involved. Local leadership is essential to tailoring responses to actual needs. While there is a growing recognition that a majority of global refugees settle in urban areas, this is not the case in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the vast majority of displaced people are in rural areas and often in camps. Uganda, Sudan, and Ethiopia are three of the major host countries of refugees in the world and their policies and capabilities affect millions of people.
Africa’s Kampala Convention nobly sketches out the legal requirements for responding to displacement and its signatories deserve praise, but implementation is lagging. Host countries are sometimes underdeveloped and unstable, making it difficult to provide for new arrivals. And displaced people have been insufficiently integrated into local communities. Refugees deserve the right to work, to access education and health services, to freely move around the country, and to eventually obtain citizenship. Even Tanzania, a country that has until recently been lauded for the safe haven it provides to displaced people, is backtracking from international commitments and not doing enough to integrate refugees into the country. Global pressure countering misguided policies is needed.
The recent rises in conflicts and displacements across Africa are unlikely to fall without greater attention paid to ending old wars, preventing new ones, and more effectively responding to refugee populations. The disquieting trends in Africa point to past failures and demand new and improved responses.
 All statistics on refugees and total displacement (refugees, internally displaced people, and asylum seekers) are from UNHCR, “Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2017,” June 20, 2018. http://www.unhcr.org/globaltrends2017/.
 All statistics on internally displaced people (not including refugees or asylum seekers) are from Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, “GRID 2018: Global Report on Internal Displacement,” May 2018. http://www.internal-displacement.org/global-report/grid2018/.
 UCDP, “UCDP/PRIO Armed Conflict Dataset version 18.1,” 2018. http://ucdp.uu.se/downloads/.
 Pettersson, Therése, and Kristine Eck, “Organized violence, 1989–2017,” Journal of Peace Research 55, no. 4 (2018): 535-547. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022343318784101.