Blog post by Dr Nicholas Maple[i], RLI staff and a postdoctoral researcher at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) at Wits University. This post was originally published on the PROTECT blog, available here.


Southern Africa is home to a significant number of refugees and forced migrants, with UNHCR reporting 1.1 million refugees and asylum-seekers in the region in 2020. To assist states in hosting these populations, the global refugee regime has been associated with offering protection to refugees in the region since the 1960s. This assistance has taken a range of forms, from specifying and promoting international standards for states to adopt when receiving and welcoming refugees, to the role of UNHCR and other UN agencies in offering direct protection and assistance to refugees in organised camps and settlements. Yet, with regional trends of urbanisation suggesting more and more refugees are rejecting refugee camps and organised settlements, to self-settle in cities and towns, some academics (particularly from within the region) now question the continuing relevance of UNHCR and the global refugee regime on the ground in southern Africa. Based on recently conducted doctoral research,[ii] this blog investigates the contemporary role of the global refugee regime in the reception of refugees in Zambia and South Africa.


The Global Refugee Regime and Sub-Saharan Africa


The global refugee regime is essentially made up of two core components: the regime’s main international legal framework – the 1951 Refugee Convention; and the regime’s key global actor – UNHCR.[iii] Traditionally, a great deal of academic attention has engaged with these two elements when research has examined refugee displacement in sub-Saharan Africa. For example, a key debate that has dominated scholarship over the last twenty years has been the role of UNHCR in responding to the mass influx of refugees into neighbouring states due to civil war or unrest. Indeed, the importance placed on the regime, and in particular UNHCR, has resulted in the host state frequently framed as a secondary or minor actor in the welcome given to refugees.


This attention has traditionally concentrated on the role of UNHCR inside the refugee camp. Certainly, since the 1980s the UN agency has been profoundly involved in the architecture of refugee reception in sub-Saharan Africa via establishing and running refugee camps for host states. Yet as a result of this overarching focus, the role of the global refugee regime outside of the camp space remains less clear to this day. This is apparent in relation to the engagement of both (i) international legal frameworks; and (ii) international actors (such as UNHCR), with reception policies in urban spaces in sub-Saharan Africa.


Of the academic work that has been conducted in cities and towns, it primarily consists of (i) key observations around how state responses to refugees in urban spaces often appear to come about through ad hoc local level policy and practice rather than international or national legal frameworks; and (ii) investigations into UNHCR global policies on urban protection and critiques concerning the lack of UNHCR’s involvement in these spaces.


It is fair to say the UN agency has been slow to react to key trends in the urbanisation of refugee populations in low- to middle-income country contexts. Large transnational cities have always received refugees and forced migrants. Yet, UNHCR has been accused of regularly ignoring urban refugees (concentrating on refugee camps instead) or viewing their claims for refugee status with mistrust.


To this day, UNHCR continues to struggle to adapt programming and interventions specifically for the urban space. As Landau et al. note, the UN agency consistently fails to recognise that ‘urban protection is a long-term process effectively inseparable from urban politics and development’. In UNHCR’s defence, the urban space is an extremely politicised space, making the position of the agency in assisting complex and often very delicate. Essentially, as Jeff Crip notes, this geographical space remains ‘new’ to UNHCR and because of this, establishing relationships with urban partners (such as mayors, municipal councils, civil society, faith-based organisations and development actors who work with the urban poor) has proved harder than expected. Equally, the agency’s role in urban spaces in sub-Saharan Africa is further complicated when host states retain an overarching camp-based reception policy.


The Global Refugee Regime in Southern Africa


To investigate the contemporary role of the global refugee regime in southern Africa, I recently conducted research in Zambia and South Africa. While these are the two principal destination countries in southern Africa for refugees, they have adopted extremely different national policies for welcoming refugees. Zambia maintains a dominant encampment policy, with refugees expected to reside in large organised settlements. Variations on the ground can though be regularly observed, with large numbers of refugees permitted (either officially or via a blind eye approach) to regularly move back and forth between the settlements and urban spaces. In contrast, South Africa, at least in law, permits refugees freedom of movement and the ability to settle anywhere in the country. Nevertheless, while national policies vary greatly, the empirical data still emphasised a number of parallels in terms of the role of the global refugee regime in the two countries.


Firstly, international frameworks appear to have little influence over how state actors’ implement refugee reception policies. Instead, it is national laws, policies and localised norms that are pertinent in practice, with national actors in the two countries implementing national norms rather than international ones. For example, in South Africa, the National 1998 Refugee Act is regularly interpreted through a constitutional lens, with human rights lawyers noting in interviews how submissions regularly start with constitutional law. Indeed, it is suggested that legal scholars within the field of refugee studies often neglect that for many actors working in refugee protection in sub-Saharan Africa, international refugee law can be a fairly remote concept.


Secondly, in terms of UNHCR as the key regime actor, the agency certainly has less influence in southern Africa than might be expected from existing literature. Indeed, the UN agency essentially adopts a non-interventionist policy (with some notable exceptions) in urban spaces within South Africa and Zambia.[iv] In essence, by moving to cities there is an implication or expectation on behalf of the refugee of self-sufficiency and resourcefulness.


Yet, the inherent risk with this approach is that UNHCR is reinforcing a conceptualisation of refugees in the sub-region as being sedentary victims in need of international assistance that is delivered solely in refugee camps. When refugees exercise their agency and move to urban areas, they are, for all intents and purposes, leaving the confines of the regime. This is particularly evident in Zambia, where UNHCR sees refugees choosing between the regime (in the refugee settlements) and the urban space.


A similar situation also occurs in South Africa, where there is an assumption within UNHCR that if refugees required protection or humanitarian assistance, they would have stopped at a refugee camp in a neighbouring state in the region rather than continuing their journeys until arriving at the southern-most country in Africa.


Additionally, this construction of urban refugees as self-reliant, in effect, confers sufficient agency onto the refugee to relinquish the host state and UNHCR of key obligations imposed by the global refugee regime involving protection and integration.


In reality, protection concerns remain in urban spaces in South Africa and Zambia. For example, increases in xenophobic violence against refugees combined with a lack of perceived protection from the state or UNHCR, accumulated in hundreds of refugees gathering at a Methodist church on Cape Town’s Greenmarket Square in late 2019.


This overarching approach by UNHCR in southern Africa (in combination with similar non-interventionist state-based policies) means most urban refugees are simply left to negotiate protection and find alternative forms of reception at the local community level. While many refugees choose to avoid state and international actors and instead self-settle and remain ‘invisible’ in cities such as Johannesburg, they have little choice in the matter.


These findings inevitably question the on-going relevance of the global refugee regime in the reception of refugees in southern Africa. In essence, the regime is being confined to the refugee camp. Yet, the refugee camp and urban spaces are becoming ever more connected in the region, with refugees regularly moving between these two reception sites. In turn, increasing numbers of refugees in the region, are rejecting the camp space altogether for cities and town. With the regime being contained within out-of-the-way geographical spaces (i.e. refugee camps), there is a danger of it becoming entirely irrelevant to the day-to-day practice of reception for large numbers of refugees in southern Africa.


Looking Forward: The Global Compacts and Post-Covid-19


These initial observations will be scrutinised and developed by ACMS within the current ‘Protect: The Right to International Protection’ Project, through 2021 and 2022, by examining the impact of the UN’s Global Compacts on Refugees and Migration on refugees’ right to international protection in South(ern) Africa. Certainly, with the implementation of both Global Compacts in the region, and recent pledges made by host states and UN agencies, there remains some optimism among policy spheres for improved protection for refugees in urban spaces. Nevertheless, it is fair to say these feelings are not universally shared – particularly within civil society in South Africa. In addition, any new developments or initiatives originating from the Compacts have to now be considered in light of the current Covid-19 pandemic, which has invariably paused or at least slowed down a number of programmes or promises related to refugee protection. In fact, the lack of protection mechanisms for refugees can be seen currently in terms of exclusionary responses by states to the pandemic (including vaccine roll-out) in southern Africa.


These discussions also form part of a larger conversation being organised by the Protect Project on the contemporary role of the Global Refugee Regime in sub-Saharan Africa, which is taking place on Friday 11 June at the 5th RLI Annual Conference. To register for tickets please use this link.



[i] Nicholas Maple is a postdoctoral researcher at the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS) and is part of the ‘Protect: The Right to International Protection’ Project.  Thank you to Prof. Jo Vearey, Prof. David Cantor and Dr Sarah Singer for comments on earlier drafts. The views expressed in the essay, and any errors that it contains, remain those of the author alone. Contact:

[ii] Based on recently completed PhD under the supervision of Prof David Cantor at the Refugee Law Initiative, University of London.

[iii] Although these are also supplemented by regional instruments such as the 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems.

[iv] With some notable exceptions, for example the work of UNHCR’s implementing partners Caritas in Zambia and the Jesuit Refugee Service in South Africa.



The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law InitiativeWe welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.