Africa has a long history and culture of assisting affected populations, refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), enshrined in the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Convention, Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. Since then African nations have continued to protect, care and find durable solutions for vulnerable populations across the continent.
People are forcibly displaced from their homes and countries for many different reasons, the most common being conflict and/or natural disaster related. Whilst some African countries are currently emerging from crisis, others remain in the throws of violence, causing thousands to flee and seek safety. Elsewhere in the continent populations continue to suffer the devastating results of natural disasters and disease. On a positive note, the ongoing efforts of African civil society and determined leadership of certain individuals, along with continued international support, has contributed to new found peace in a number of countries. In this context millions of displaced persons are now able to experience a voluntary, safe and dignified return home.
However, with an estimated 17 million people remaining forcibly displaced across the continent, the challenges still faced are many. A substantial proportion of these populations have now been in displacement for years and in some cases decades, as a result of protracted crisis. Whilst the need for assistance remains paramount, donor fatigue is placing vulnerable populations at risk of dwindling support. The protection and assistance that people receive is already very basic, a drop in which would be catastrophic. Therefore it is essential that adequate funds are secured to ensure the necessary support and protection, and empower assisted populations to positively contribute to achieving durable solutions to the challenges they face.
Affected populations are any group of people vulnerable to a situation detrimental to their dignity, health and wellbeing. The breadth is all encompassing, be it people afflicted by disaster, disease, conflict or persecution, at home or those who are forced to flee. Response and support mechanisms are based on the assessment of needs, rather than preconceived categories, and aim to achieve sustainable solutions to the multiple and complex challenges people face.
Refugees are people who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, are outside their country of nationality, and are unable to or, owing to such fear, are unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country…”. The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
Internally Displaced Persons, often referred to as IDPs, are civilians, mostly women and children, who have been forced to leave their homes because of crisis, be it conflict, persecution or disaster, to seek safety. Their reasons for fleeing may be very similar to refugees, but unlike the former, IDPs stay within the boundaries of their own country and thus are afforded few of the safeguards and assistance given to refugees.
Returnees (in this context) are refugees or IDPs, who are returning to their place or country of origin/citizenship, following a period of crisis. Although the situation may have stabilised, facilitating their return, there can often be many hurdles to resettlement, including scarce resources, a lack of basic amenities and destroyed infrastructures. No less daunting can be the journey home, with increased risks to health, dignity and wellbeing.
Challenges: Imagine losing your home, your possessions or worst of all your friends and family. Displacement in whatever guise poses huge challenges to a person; disrupting social norms, exposing people to increased risks and leaving them without the basic necessary resources and amenities to live. To be displaced can quite literally be life threatening. Such challenges face hundreds of thousands of people across the continent everyday, along with the agencies/organisations and Governments who work to assist them. To compound the situation, displacement is generally the result of crisis, be it war, violence or natural disaster, all of which present there own risks and complexities.
Empowerment: Too often people have been reduced to numbers and statistics – victims of circumstance, a description which totally fails to acknowledge their strengths, abilities and self esteem. In distinct contrast refugees, IDPs, returnees and affected populations can be found throughout Africa being resourceful and innovative in working to improve their circumstances and overcome the challenges they face. It is now widely accepted that a participatory approach holds the key to long-term development and to this ends much humanitarian work now focuses on capacity development. Common terms used include, ‘grass roots development’, ‘community driven change’, ‘self reliance’ and ‘sustainable solutions’.