Blog post written by Tamara Wood (UNSW) and Dr Marina Sharpe (McGill) who will both present on the ‘Mass Displacement and Regional Protection Frameworks in Africa’ panel at the upcoming RLI 2nd Annual Conference. The full conference programme is available here.


The large-scale movement of persons is a defining feature of displacement in Africa. Conflict, generalised violence, persecution, political instability and the effects of natural hazards and climate change – whether alone or in combination – force large numbers of people from their homes each year. In the last decade, situations both protracted and new have forced massive numbers of people to move in countries such Burundi, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan. While a small number travel to Europe or beyond, most of those forced to flee seek safety within the region.

The cornerstone of refugee protection in Africa is the 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. The 1969 Convention constitutes the ‘regional complement’ to the 1951 Refugee Convention and applies alongside it. It has been widely ratified by African states and its terms are increasingly being incorporated into states’ domestic legislation. The 1969 Convention has been widely praised for expanding eligibility for refugee status, widening the principle of non-refoulement and formalising critical refugee protection principles, such as the humanitarian nature of asylum and the voluntary character of repatriation.

The 1969 Convention is frequently said to be better suited than the 1951 Convention to responding to mass influx situations. This is due in large part to its expanded refugee definition, which emphasises conditions in the country of origin, and the related use of prima facie refugee status determination by African states. At a time when the continued relevance of the 1951 Refugee Convention is being challenged politically and practically, regional regimes such as the 1969 African Refugee Convention can offer a more humane and pragmatic approach to refugee protection.

Unfortunately, however, the high hopes set for the 1969 Convention have rarely been met in practice, where implementation by African states has been compromised by limited resources and a lack of political will. In international refugee law scholarship, too, African regional refugee law is largely ignored, perhaps due to the lack of preparatory works to the 1969 Convention and the dearth of information on state practice.

For the Convention to foster effective protection, critical questions about its scope, application and relationship to other regional protection-related instruments must be addressed. These include: what is the relevance of the 1969 Convention in the postcolonial era and to new and emerging forms of displacement? Who is entitled to protection under the 1969 Convention’s expanded refugee definition? Does it cover those fleeing environmental or economic events? What is the relationship between the 1969 Convention and other relevant regional regimes, such as those related to human rights, freedom of movement and IDP protection?

As the Convention approaches its 50th anniversary in 2019, further analysis of its scope and application is critical and timely. Increasing interest in international fora, including within UNHCR and the Platform on Disaster Displacement, provides a valuable opportunity for input by scholars and practitioners and could help to ensure that the important protections envisaged by the 1969 Convention are realised in practice.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative who coordinate this blog. We welcome contributions to this blog – please see here for contribution guidelines.