Blog post written by Tsion Tadesse Abebe (Senior Researcher, Migration Program, at the Institute for Security Studies, Addis Ababa) and forms part of a series of blog posts analysing the potential and shortcomings of the Global Compact on Refugees.

Enhancing refugees’ self-reliance and easing the pressure on host countries are the two key objectives that determine the success of the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) in Africa. The objective of expanding third country resettlement is impacted by deteriorating multilateralism as right wing politics is getting a strong-hold in many parts of the Western World.  Protracted African conflicts, on the other hand, make the objective of voluntary repatriation a less viable option at present.  

The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) is central to the implementation of GCR in Africa, where eight[i] out of 15 CRRF roll-out countries globally are found. The CRRF is an integral part of the GCR and serves as an implementation wing of the Compact. This makes the success of the CRRF in Africa critical to the success of the GCR process overall.

A major contribution of the CRRF implementation in terms of addressing displacement issues in Africa comes in two aspects. First, it aspires to combine humanitarian aid and development investment to achieve long term solutions to forced displacement challenges. Second, it seeks to bring host communities on board and aspires to help refugees and host communities thrive together through enhancing their livelihoods. This signals a shift from an exclusive focus on humanitarian approaches to refugee issues and addresses persistent concerns by host communities about refugees having better access to services due to international support.[ii]

Self-reliance of refugees

Ensuring refugees’ self-reliance through facilitation of livelihood opportunities vis a vis solely focusing on humanitarian-aid is a key policy shift spearheaded by the CRRF/GCR process. In theory, self-reliance will make refugees productive members of society, which in a way contributes to easing the pressure on host countries. By extension, one can argue that it can also promote peaceful co-existence.

On the other hand, unless context-specific assessments and implementation plans are designed and pursued, the promotion of self-reliance can lead to increased tensions. Promoting the self-reliance of refugees in an environment where the host communities are worse off can have adverse implications. To prevent unwanted outcomes, therefore, it is necessary to conduct awareness-raising to manage this perception. Further, the development interventions targeting host communities may need to be transformative in nature, benefitting a significant number of the host community members. In the absence of projects that could produce visible impacts in the host communities, the slightest of opportunities given to refugees could be misconstrued.

The need for conflict sensitive implementation of the CRRF

For this reason, just combining humanitarian aid and development investment may not be all that is needed to achieving ‘self-reliance’ of refugees and host communities. The application of a conflict sensitive approach and a programme of strong public engagement are equally important.

The GCR recognises the importance of promoting peaceful and productive inclusion of refugees and the well-being of local communities under (para 100). Paragraph 8 of the Compact also makes references to the necessity of improving cooperation among political, humanitarian, development and peace actors.

These provisions provide the basis for consideration of a conflict sensitive approach, which  is developed on a thorough and up-to-date conflict analysis which needs to consider the following two key aspects: (i) In-depth knowledge and understanding[iii] about the context where the GCR/CRRF programme is implemented; and (ii) a sound understanding of the GCR/CRRF’s intentional or unintentional impact on existing tensions. 

Such kind of analysis will provide strong insight to the CRRF implementation process.  First, it will provide a clear sense of the two-way interaction between enhancing refugees’ self-reliance and its impact on host communities and local administration. Second, it will help to forecast potential outcomes of interventions and devise the necessary plan to maximize potential benefits and minimize potential damages.

The fact that conflict remains the leading driver of forced displacement in Africa makes the need for conflict sensitive approaches even more important. The adoption of the 1969 Organisation of African Unity (OAU) ‘Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa’ was prompted by the mass displacement of people due to liberation struggles.  In 1969, there were 700 000 refugees in the continent and internal displacement was not an issue. Currently, there are 20.8 million forcibly displaced comprising 6.3 million refugees and 14.5 million IDPs.  

How Africa is impacted by conflicts is shown by the fact that five of the seven situations which UNHCR has categorised as ‘refugee emergencies’ are found in countries or regions that currently are experiencing violent conflicts namely DRC, CAR, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Burundi. While poverty, economic hardship, and poor governance, which relates to mismanagement of diversity, marginalisation of the youth, and election related violence, do contribute to the proliferation of displacements in the continent, conflict still remains the single most important driver. Here it is worth nothing that natural disasters and climate-induced displacement are also leading many Africans to flee. The 2011 Somalian refugee emergency that led thousands to seek shelter in Kenya and Ethiopia is a case in point here. Drought-led famine was the major reason, which was further exacerbated by continuation of conflict, an increase in global food prices, and the US government’s anti-terrorism legislation that prevented aid reaching Southern Somalia.

Conflict sensitivities: The case of Gambella in Ethiopia

The Gambella regional state, one of Ethiopia’s nine federal states, hosts 401, 594 of the overall refugee population in the country numbering 905 831.  In the region, multiple layers of tension exist – involving Anuak and Nuer ethnic groups, highlanders and lowlanders, and refugees and host communities. Especially, land is a very contentious issue and the presence of refugees in large numbers makes it even more contentious. Environmental degradation including deforestation, destruction of wildlife, demographic pressure and historical tensions between the ethnic groups are some of the challenges that need to be addressed prior to integrating refugees.

As of 2017, the refugee population outnumbered the host community in Gambella. This threatens to disturb the demographic balance as the overwhelming majority of the refugees are ethnic Nuer, a development that’s not positively perceived by Anuaks. Since May 2017, the government and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have been relocating newly arriving South Sudanese refugees to the neighboring Benishangul-Gumuz region, which is an indicator of a realization of the challenge.

These dynamics persist after the adoption of the revised Ethiopian refugee proclamation in January 2019. The new proclamation grants freedom of movement and offers socio-economic rights to refugees including the right to work and live outside the refugee camps as part of a gradual move away from a camp-based assistance model to socio-economic inclusion within the Ethiopian communities. Ethnic Annuak activists in particular called for rallies in Addis Ababa and in Gambella town to protest the passage of the proclamation. The misreporting of the international media, claiming all the close to 1 million refugees will leave camps may have exacerbated the misperception though the anxiety about growing population has always been there.  

This is despite the fact that only 5% of the refugees in Ethiopia could be eligible for local integration. As per Ethiopia’s Pledges made in 2016 at the UN Leaders’ Summit, those eligible for local integration would be refugees who have lived in the country for 20 years and above. The fact that the overwhelming majority of the refugees in Ethiopia arrived within the last 10 years means the majority will not qualify to integrate. More so for the South Sudanese, who largely arrived following the eruption of South Sudan’s conflict in 2013.  

Provision of accurate information to the public on what the new proclamation means for both refugees and the Ethiopians hosting them, should be part of the conflict sensitive approach. Indications are that the government is moving in that direction, with a plan for a massive public outreach programme before diving into the implementation phase. This is a step in the right direction as the public needs to have a clear understanding of the link between the presence of refugees in a given location and the benefits that they bring to local communities, including the much-needed funding to implement the joint projects.

Conclusion and Recommendation

The CRRF/GCR has made two major contributions to improve responses to forced displacement. First, it proposes a strong focus towards ensuring self-reliance of refugees through combining humanitarian aid and development. Second, it brings on-board host community members to strive together with refugees to enhance their livelihoods. This is a step in right direction to address especially Africa’s protracted refugee situations. The implementation of the CRRF/GCR, however, should be guided by context specific assessments since promotion of self-reliance of refugees among impoverished host communities can lead to tensions. As a result, the development interventions targeting host communities should be transformative enough to achieve strong public buy-in. Further, it is critical to employ a conflict sensitive approach to navigate through the delicate balance and for the benefit of all. To achieve the desired result at every stage of the GCR/CRRF implementation, establishing a tripartite platform among humanitarian, development, and peace/conflict actors should be considered.

[i] The countries are Chad, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia, Kenya, Somalia, and Djibouti 

[ii] For example, access to potable water for refugees in Pugnido refugee camp in Ethiopia is 13 liters per person per day, (7 liters short of the 20 liters’ minimum – UNHCR), while the host community has far less (Tsion Tadesse Abebe, 2018, Ethiopia’s refugee respose: focus on socio-economic integration and self-reliance, ISS East Africa Report 19)

[iii] This includes understanding refugee-host community relations, gender dynamics, and access to resources that affect the implementation of the CRFF.

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