Is a world without refugees conceivable?

By Nkrumah Mushelenga

Rt Commissioner for Refugees

20 June 2019 marks World Refugee Day. Who is a refugee and who is not? According to the UNHCR Handbook 2011, the 51 Convention and 1967 Protocol contain three types of provision:

Provision giving the basic definition of who is and who is not a refugee and who, having been a refugee, has ceased to be one.

Provision that defines the legal status of refugees and their rights and their duties in the country of refuge.

Other provisions dealing with implementation of the instruments from the administration and diplomatic standpoint.

It is vital to mention that Article 35 of the 1951 Convention and Article 11 of the 1976 Protocol, contain an undertaking by contracting states to co-operate with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the exercise of its functions and in particular, to facilitate its duty of supervising the application of the provision of these instruments.

Despite the undertaking by contracting states to cooperate with the Office UNHCR, little is being done to mitigate the source of refugee situation (the push and pull factors). The world is gradually returning to the Cold War era through economic war between the US and the People’s Republic of China.

The dying of inexplicable numbers of African pregnant women, children and young men in the Mediterranean Ocean seeking a better life in Europe is a cause of anxiety to us. The refusal of European countries to accept refugees from Africa should be a cause of concern to the African Union. The occupation of Western Sahara by Morocco and the militarisation of the Sudan are a tragedy to Africa.

(We commend the African Heads of States for their Pan-Africanist vision for having passed the longest overdue AU Agenda 2063, particularly the silencing of the staccato of the guns on the continent. The talk of an outstanding African currency and African passport is another indicative that we are indeed the masters of our continental, social, economic and political destiny.   

The UNHCR was established on 1 January 1951. The statute of the Office is annexed to Resolution 428 (V), adopted by the General Assembly on 14 December 1950. The High Commissioner is called upon, inter alia, to provide international protection under the auspices of the UN to refugees falling within the competence of his or her office.

With the current donor fatigue situation and diminishing world economic order, the UNHCR is unable to provide adequate international protection to refugees and asylum seekers worldwide.

Following are some of the key regional instruments relating to refugees: the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, the 1969 Convention Governing Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, as well as the Americas and Europe Instruments.

Part Two of the 1969 OAU (AU) Convention definition referred to every person who, owing to external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order in either part of the whole of his or her country of origin or nationality, is compelled to leave his or her place of habitual resident in order to seek refuge in another place outside his or her country of origin or nationality. Hence, the overwhelming international solidarity with the peoples of Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe during their wars for national independence. Southern Africa had the largest refugee populations on the continent.

Refugees fled from Angola, Namibia, South Africa and Mozambique due to colonial occupation of Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, and the notorious apartheid system in South Africa. We commend the UNHCR’s active support through the UN-led voluntary repatriation exercise.

There are three durable solutions, mainly repatriation, resettlement and local integration in the host country. Voluntary repatriation is the most preferred option to address the plight of refugees and remains an open option for all refugees.

The second durable solution is resettlement. The challenge under this programme is that the prerogative is in the hands of the resettling country. UNHCR only offers facilitation services in this regard. The host country has no role except to endorse an exit stamp on the passport of an exiting refugee at the port of entry or exit. There is an element of selective morality. The resettlement system is characteristic of the master and slavery period. It lacks transparency and accountability.

The third durable solution is local integration, which is a dynamic and multi-faceted two-way process that requires efforts by all parties concerned. The refugees should be prepared to adapt to the host society without having to forego their own cultural identity; and the host communities and public institutions should be ready to accept refugees and meet the needs of a diverse population. The process of local integration is complex and gradual. It comprises four inter-related dimensions:

Legal Dimension: this entails the host state granting refugees a secure legal status and a progressively wider range of rights and entitlements that are broadly commensurate with those enjoyed by its citizens.

Economic dimension: it is a fact that self-reliance plays an important part in this dimension whereby individuals, households and communities are enabled to become increasingly self-sufficient and can contribute to the local economy. For example, asylum countries are encouraged to recognize the equivalency of academic, professional and vocational diplomas, certificates and degrees acquired by refugees prior to entering the host country as part of the regional or continental brain gain approach.

Social and Cultural Dimension: this requires refugees to make meticulous efforts to adapt to the locale environment and respect and understand new cultures and lifestyles, taking into consideration the values of the local population, and requires the host communities to accept refugees into its socio-cultural fabric. Both processes should be underpinned by values of diversity, non-discrimination and tolerance.

Regional member states are encouraged to include awareness-raising activities at national and bilateral levels. Such activists should aim at promoting the positive aspects of a diverse society and interaction between refugees, the local population, civil society and refugee organisations.

The message should foster empathy and understanding through public statements, appropriate legislation and social policies, allowing refugees to participate actively in the civic, economic, and social cultural life. Many refugees in Namibia, for example, are multilingual and belong to a diverse set of Namibian social and religious organisations. Hence, there is an opportunity for sociocultural and economic brain gain.

In order to navigate SADC towards a world without refugees, we commend the SADC Head of States and Government for demonstrating political will, social economic security and harmonisation of regional governance structures, as well as regional trade and environment protection, security structures, and overwhelming Pan-Africanism spirit.

As matter of priority and confidence building measures, refugees are under international obligation to respect and honour their general obligations by respecting the domestic rules and procedure of the host country.

We commend the AU member states for their commitment to continental reform, the AU Agenda 2063, the overdue African currency, African passport, the harmonisation of regional policy, the bilateral agreement, the realization of free movement across the continent and at regional level,s just to mention a few.

For an African dream of a world without refugees to be realized, we appeal to the African Head of States to facilitate a Europe-Africa Summit of Head of States; review the 51 UN and 1969 OAU (AU) Conventions with the objective to create Africa-Europa win-win transparency and accountable labour mobility agreeable standards, to enhance brain gain as opposed to the current brain drain system, and to promote transparency and accountability between the recipient country and country of origin.