by Tiffany Ellis
Published on: Jan 22, 2007
Type: Opinions

The involuntary displacement of people is a long-standing phenomenon. Throughout history, forces and factors have driven people from their normal and secure environments in search of more favorable locations that would support their survival. Although this is still a dynamic instigation, involuntary population displacement currently involves a wider range of concerns.

Today, people are forced to uproot from their physical, economic, social, cultural, and psychological homes as a consequence of social disorder, political instability, and economic impoverishment. While traditionally, displacement of people in Africa has resulted from life threatening circumstances, the process has evolved to reflect the challenges of the 21st century, becoming more of a concern than ever before.

The general concept of displacement has come to encompass all forms of disruptions, usually caused by natural disasters, development projects, conservation and preservation activities, planned resettlement programs, violence and conflict. As a consequence of displacement, a person is forced to leave his or her native place, a phenomenon known as forced migration. This is opposed to voluntary migration, a movement in which individuals and groups willingly decide to migrate in the complete absence of economic, political, cultural, and environmentally based `push' factors (Berhanu, 2000).

Forced migration generally refers to the movements of refugees and internally displaced people, as well as people displaced by natural, environmental, chemical or nuclear disasters, development projects, or famine. While this concept is rather intricate, it can be categorized into three types, based on causal factors: conflict, development, and disaster induced displacement (Refugee Study Center, 2004).

In conflict induced displacement, people are forced to flee their homes because of armed conflict including civil war, generalized violence, and persecution on the basis of nationality, religion, race, political opinion, or social group; state authorities are incapable or reluctant to provide them with protection. Many of these displaced people will seek refuge across international borders under international law or remain anonymous due to the fear that they will not be granted asylum (Refugee Study Center, 2004). Although Article II(1) of the Charter of the Organization of African Unity addresses a refugee's admission to safety in another country, stating that “member states of the OAU shall use their best endeavors consistent of those refugees who, well-founded reasons, are unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin or nationality”, “the non-mandatory character in its wording and the fact that the reception is made subject to national legislation may constitute a serious limitation” (Awuku, 1995). In other words, while international law seeks to regulate the question of asylum, the charter is too flexible, allowing a state to make its own interpretation.

With so many conflicts since the termination of the Cold War, displacement has increasingly become a strategic tactic frequently employed by all sides of the conflict; resulting in a significant increase in the number of refugees, and even more so in the amount of internally displaced persons (Refugee Study Center, 2004). Conflict-induced displacement is an important issue of present and future concern for it is expected to uproot millions.

While development programs are supposed to improve living conditions, it continues to cause displacement and impoverishment of millions each year. As a result of development-induced displacement, that is implemented policies and projects that are supposed to improve development, people are forced to move from their homes. In relocating, many of the affected remain within the borders of their native country, although some emigrate. This demonstrates both the lack of compensation and the lack of responsibility of host governments (Refugee Study Center, 2006).

For example, it is this failure of African states to publicly condemn breaches of human rights in their fellow countries on the basis that such condemnation is unjustifiable under O.A.U. Charter Article III(2) that gives rise to allegations of a "double standard" within the O.A.U. in condemning certain practices while overlooking the human rights atrocities within their own frontiers (D'Sa, 1985). The burden is thus placed on NGOs to bring attention to cases that concern systemic, serious, or massive human rights violations. This is no small burden and NGOs tend to avoid such recognition for fear of publically condemning specific states; outside intervention is also considered inappropriate for it encroaches on states' sovereignty (Mohamed, 1999).

Theoretically, development projects, such as infrastructure, public utilities, and highways, are undertaken by private sector corporations and are not supposed to displace people coercively by invoking the eminent domain principle. However, in practice this happens quite frequently, compounding the numbers of development-displaced people as a result (Ohta and Gebre, 2005).

In Africa, displacement is commonly caused by disasters. This category includes natural disasters, like floods, droughts, epidemics, famines, environmental change, such as deforestation, desertification, land degradation, and global warming, and human-made disasters, such as instance industrial accidents and radioactivity. These different types of disasters also tend to overlap (Refugee Study Center, 2006). Each year millions are affected and displaced.

In a continent that lacks the necessary resources to cope with such tragedies, the international community provides much of the needed assistance, like food supplies, medicine, or modes of transportation. Despite clear differences in the causal factors, the similarities across these processes, in terms of the consequences upon the affected people, can be recognized. Involuntary settlers, refugees, and displacees, alike, confront many prominently similar social and economic problems; displacement has the capacity to disprupt lives to a considerable extent, or make them prone to the risks of impoverishment (Ohta and Gebre, 2005).

Regardless of the causal factor of displacement, civil war, inter-state conflict, ethnic conflict, changes due to socio-economic or governmental reasons, human and individual abuse, natural disasters and development issues, all have resulted in forced mass-migration. In order to understand the impact of displacement on the affected people, both directly and indirectly, the affected people have been assembled into assorted groups (Auku, 1995). These categories of involuntary displacement are refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced persons, development displacees, environmental and disaster displacees, smuggled people, and trafficked people.

The question of forced displacement relates to the protection of human rights and provision of humanitarian assistance for it represents, among other things, the denial of people's freedom of movement and choice of residence, which are recognized in Article 13(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 12(1) of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Ohta and Gebre, 2005).

The term refugee has been in use since it was first coined during World War II to describe a `person who has sought refuge' in general terms. A legal definition also exists, preserved in the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. This Convention was a reaction to the increasing problems which resulted from scores of Africans fleeing their countries to neighboring states; it came into being mainly in order to assist the return of millions of people to their countries that were forcibly displaced, deported, or resettled during the Second World War (Awuku, 1995). Article 1A(2) of the UN Convention defines a refugee, while the general provisions as a whole, set out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum and the responsibility of nations that grant asylum. Subsequently, the 1967 Protocol to the Status of Refugees made amendments to allow all refugees the benefit of equal status; the date was excluded from the definition and refugee status was applied without geographical limitations.

This definition, however, is not wide enough to cope with all the refugee situations in Africa. Thus, in an effort to address refugee problems, the former Organization of African Unity called for a regional Convention, which would account for the specific refugee problems in Africa (Awuku, 1995). The final draft of the OAU Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa was adopted in 1969 and came into force in 1974. The refugee definition in the OAU Convention, though it closely follows the clauses of the UN Convention, is broader than the UN Convention in order to include people fleeing their country because of external aggression, occupation, foreign domination, or events seriously disturbing public order; it also made important additions concerning asylum and voluntary repatriation (Awuku, 1995). Those acknowledged as refugees are much better off than other forced migrants in that they have a clear legal status and are warranted the protection of the UNHCR.

Although Africa is formally committed to protecting human rights, in practice the rights of displaced people are not respected as governments continue to impose unjustified restrictions. Even refugees who benefit from one of the world's most progressive protection regimes in reality face endless human rights hurdles (Ohta & Gebre, 2005). Hence, the situation for other involuntarily displaced persons who do not have this advantage is far worse. To begin with, the circumstances for internally displaced persons, or IDPs, can not be much better, as they are still without legal or institutional bases for receiving protection from the international community; nor do they receive the direct humanitarian assistance that is necessary to sustain a minimum standard of living, for this provision falls under the jurisdiction of individual governments (Ohta & Gebre, 2005).

"Internally displaced persons" was identified by the United Nations in 1992 as “persons who have been forced to flee their homes suddenly or unexpectedly in large numbers, as a result of armed conflict, internal strife, systemic violations of human rights or natural or man-made disasters, and who are within the territory of their own country” (Refugee Study Center, 2006). There is no specifically-mandated body to provide assistance to IDPs, as there is with refugees. Internally displaced persons receive external humanitarian relief only when their governments recognize that the crisis exceeded local capabilities to provide protection and assistance. Except for certain disasters such as those caused by drought and flood, African governments seem to be reluctant to acknowledge and make public the problems of IDPs (Ohta and Gebre, 2005).

While African states have formally committed to the issue of human rights, the extent to which African nations fully comply with this requirement is limited. States have adopted the African Charter; however it allows them a considerable degree of autonomy in respect to human rights by the extensive use of clauses (D'Sa, 1985). As a consequence of its flexibility, involuntarily displaced persons are left in precarious positions. Asylum seekers are those seeking refugee recognition, thus legal status. These are people who have crossed an international border in search of protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention, but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined (Refugee Study Center, 2006). Additionally affected are development displacees; these people are forced to move as a consequence of policies and projects that are implemented under the pretense that they will induce development.

What is more, there are groups of environmental and disaster displacees, smuggled people who are moved illegally for profit, and trafficked people, who are moved by deception or coercion for the purposes of exploitation (Refugee Study Center, 2006). As a result of dislocation, involuntarily displaced people are left with an uncertain future, for most African countries do not seem to have any clear national regulations concerning the involuntary relocation of people.

Involuntary displacements are generally caused by the interaction of political, economic, social, cultural, and environmental problems. In the African state of Eritrea, the root cause of displacement was the refutation of the people's right to self-determination and the accompanying persecution and violence, a refugee situation caused by conflict. Although these problems came to an end with the country's independence in 1993, the Eritrean economy and physical infrastructures were left devastated by the 30 year war, and between a third and a quarter of the country's population was displaced (Ohta & Gebre, 2005). The consequential task of repatriating and reintegrating the large numbers of refugees was beyond the economic and human resources of the newly established Eritrean state, and necessitated collaborative international action. Unfortunately, the relationship between the provisional government of Eritrea and the UNHCR was, from the beginning, stained by misinterpretations, misperceptions, and lack of co-operation, representing one of the major primary obstructions to organize return operations (Ohta and Gebre, 2005).

Despite their unfavorable relations the UNHCR, the provisional government procured an ambitious repatriation plan known as the Program for Refugee Reintegration and the Rehabilitation of Resettlement Areas, or PROFERI. It is important to note, that in spite of the relationship between a lasting solution and the elimination of “root causes” of the refugee problems, repatriation continues to be considered to be the most durable solution by the international community; however, it is merely a band-aid to the problem (Bulcha, 1988).

The presence of so many protracted refugee situations in Africa can be linked to the fact that countries of asylum, donor states, UNHCR, and other players have given so much more attention to repatriation than to integration. PROFERI, like most relief approaches of refugee assistance, entailed highly visible international funding, rather than responding in innovative ways. PROFERI consisted of three successive phases aimed at repatriating and reintegrating the returnees as well as assisting the large number of self-repatriates, IDPs, and local residents in the areas of return.

The international response, however, was quite slow and unfavorable, and thus a smaller-scale project called PROFERI Pilot Project, or PPP, was undertaken. This project was administrated by the Government of Eritrea and UNHCR, and the Government of Sudan and UNHCR (Ohta & Gebre, 2005). Even though Article V(2) of the African Charter stipulates that “the country of asylum, in collaboration with the country of origin, shall make adequate arrangements for the safe return of refugees who request repatriation” (Awuku, 1995), relations between the two countries soon deteriorated and were eventually severed, leaving the PPP only partially completed.

Were African states actually in conjunction with their formal agreements, the dissolution of their initial agreement would never have occurred. In this view it should have been the duty of Eritrea and Sudan to preserve the memorandum of understanding in order to reassure refugees and facilitate voluntary repatriation (Bulcha, 1988). In reality, however, in a politically unstable environment, conflict tends to preside over human rights, and hence the African refugee problem persists.

Even though the promised organized repatriation failed, and despite the high risk of failure and impoverishment, many refugees returned homewards without any international assistance. In time, the refugee's efforts were reinforced by an area-based holistic development approach adopted by the Eritrean Government in the returnee-receiving areas (Ohta & Gebre, 2005). The government's approach was meant to generate social and economic capacities for absorption by simultaneously addressing the social, economic, and environmental problems that had contributed to the dilemma of population displacement. This approach is imperative because, for voluntary repatriation to be successful, the problems that caused people to flee their country must be resolved.

In order to solve refugee problems, it is imperative that African states address the root causes of refugee movements (Awuku, 1995). All residents, regardless of status, were anticipated to benefit from the newly
created opportunities in the areas of return. By not discriminating in the name of development, the government is worthy of emulation, for even though this policy is laid down in the African Charter, few states uphold it. Compounding this is the fact that the Commission does not have the powers to enforce its regulations. Even though the effects of the border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia undermined most of these achievements, it is important to take into account where the government implemented effective measures (Awuku, 1995). The situation of Eritrean refugees was due to political instability; it is this root-cause that must be addressed.

Forced displacement may result when governments use population relocations or resettlements as a political weapon to weaken nationalist or ethnic movements. In the mid-1980s the military government of Ethiopia, the Derg, forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of famine-affected Ethiopians from drought-prone zones to southwestern and southern Ethiopia where land and rainfall were thought to be plentiful; if they refused to resettle, they would be conscripted into the army (Berhanu, 2000). The 1985 large-scale planned resettlement program, the government's supposed response to the 1984/1985 famine, was centered on agricultural undertakings that were envisioned to improve and ultimately allow the recipients to be self-sufficient. While the government claimed that its chief objective was to avoid the recurrence of famine and to sweep away its devastating effects in a durable manner, the 1985 resettlement became a controversial and politically sensitive matter for it was also argued that the government may have planned collateral advantages of resettlement; development displacees resulted from development policies and projects. In this view, the operation was actually intended to remove people from insurgency areas and to use the relocatees as a shield against insurgency. The 1985 resettlement program can therefore be seen as driven by a mix of both humanitarian and political imperatives (Ohta & Gebre, 2005). With regards to the African problem of forced displacement, this demonstrates that when African governments use the instruments of power to them for repressive purpose, the number of African displaced persons will only grow.

While there is no easy solution to the displacement problem in Africa, a number of proposals can be considered if this issue is to be addressed. The international community needs to pay greater attention to resolving the conflicts at hand, for these are largely the root of protracted displacement situations; when allowed to fester, they become unmanageable, and are left unresolved. The international community must maintain and promote the principle of voluntary repatriation; however, this must be accompanied by national rehabilitation and reconstruction. Alternative solutions, such as local integration, must also be explored. Subsequently, pending voluntary return, self-reliance should be promoted (Ohta & Gebre, 2005). A longer-term and more ambitious approach needs to be taken on for this to be made possible because the root of the causes of displacement must be addressed. The consistent increase in the number of displaced persons in Africa can be attributed to political-economic problems and contradictions that mark governance in Africa in general. While such conditions persist, compounded by natural disasters, the problem will continue unabated, and even contribute to the growing number of displaced persons.

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