Africa’s Forgotten Refugees and Returnees

Testimony of Joel R. Charny, Vice President
June 20, 2007
Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health
Committee on Foreign Affairs, US House of Representatives

Mr. Chairman, thank you for holding this hearing today on African Refugees on the occasion of World Refugee Day. I appreciate the opportunity to testify before the Subcommittee, the Chair and Ranking member of which have long histories of working to protect human rights and dignity. You and many members of this Subcommittee have undertaken difficult missions to impoverished and conflict ridden areas to witness refugee situations up close and to convey the interest and support of the Congress and the American people for these victims of conflict. Your hearing today gives us all an opportunity to think about what we can do to improve and resource U.S. and international refugee policy and assistance programs so that they more effectively protect and aid innocent victims of violence and persecution.

I represent Refugees International, a humanitarian advocacy organization headquartered in Washington, which works to generate lifesaving humanitarian assistance and protection for displaced people around the world and to end the conditions that create displacement. RI is independently funded, neither seeking nor accepting funds from governments or the United Nations.


Displacement in Africa is a major priority for Refugees International. Even as I present this testimony we have teams assessing the situation in southern Sudan and the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). In addition to these locations, areas of concern where RI has conducted missions over the past year include: the Darfur region of Sudan; eastern and southern Chad, focusing on Sudanese and Central African refugees as well as internally displaced Chadians; the Central African Republic; northern Uganda; the Ivory Coast, focusing on internal displacement and Liberian refugees; and Senegal, focusing on stateless Mauritanians. Other countries presently producing large-scale displacement or with the potential to do so include Somalia; Zimbabwe; and Guinea.

In all, there are approximately three million refugees and 11 million internally displaced people on the African continent, which represents about 40% of the total number of people displaced by conflict in the world.

These numbers present a daunting challenge to the agencies trying to meet the assistance and protection needs of the displaced. Thanks to bi-partisan Congressional support, the United States has been a major contributor to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and its non-governmental partners. This year UNHCR requested donors to provide $577 million for African refugees, returnees and the internally displaced populations that it assists. UNHCR’s programs generally cover only the most basic needs: water, food, shelter and minimal health care. Items like shoes, clothing, school materials, education beyond the primary level, and shelter repair are rarely included. Psycho-social counseling, prevention of gender-based violence, skills training and income generation projects have too often been considered luxuries which the international community has been unwilling to fund.

This year the U.S. again plans to support 25% of UNHCR’s Africa appeals, even though some past Congresses have suggested increasing this level to 30% given the scale of need in Africa and the problems UNHCR faces in funding its programs.

In reviewing the President’s budget for 2008, however, we were alarmed at the cuts proposed from current levels. Our calculations suggest that unless overseas funding is increased by at least $100 million, the US would only be able to provide about 15% of UNHCR’s appeals, compared to our traditional 25%. The State Department would also be forced to reduce funding to the humanitarian programs of other international organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross. For FY08 the InterAction coalition of nongovernmental organizations has suggested that core humanitarian programs --- Migration and Refugee Account, the International Foreign Disaster Assistance account and the Emergency Refugee and Migration Account ---receive an increase of over $800 million to bring assistance to minimum standards. It is essential that Congress work to increase overseas assistance in FY 2008 so that the basic needs of refugees for food, water, medicine and shelter can be better met.

Beyond this basic appeal for increased funding, I would like to stress the following issues provoked by a review of the challenges facing Africa’s displaced:

The need to invest in returns

There is no shortage of misery in Africa, but the fact is that there are hopeful developments as well. For example, in southern Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Liberia political developments have created the possibility for refugees and internally displaced people to return home in large numbers. Northern Uganda is not yet quite stable enough, but people are beginning to leave the government camps for temporary shelters much closer to their homes where they can at least begin cultivating their fields again.

What Refugees International has found in its field assessments, however, is a serious lack of support for families voting with their feet and taking the huge risk of returning home to rebuild. International aid agencies and the donors that support them are often able and willing to meet the emergency needs of the displaced in camps and even in more insecure locations, but when it comes time to invest in recovery, neither the agencies nor the funding is present at anywhere near the level required. The inability to invest in the recovery process jeopardizes the peace and stability of countries that are only just now emerging from protracted conflict.

Southern Sudan is the quintessential example of this phenomenon. The signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 marked the end of 22 years of conflict with the north, and laid the foundation for the return of hundreds of thousands of civilians who had been displaced throughout Sudan and into surrounding countries. Since security has progressively returned to many portions of the south, thousands of displaced, many of whom fled the region as small children, have seized upon this opportunity to venture back home independently, as well as with the assistance of UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, the Government of South Sudan, and local churches.

But two decades of civil war in an unforgiving climate have reduced even state capitals to urban shells, while many small villages have been wiped off the face of the rural landscape. Unpaved roads, lack of clean water and sewage systems, and only minimal basic services, such as primary health care and education, mean that refugees and internally displaced people are returning to towns and villages with insufficient capacity to welcome and integrate them.

South Sudan is in desperate need of resources to support the return and reintegration process. International donors have been too quick to assume that emergency needs have declined and are reducing their funding for humanitarian assistance, while resources for recovery programs and long-term development are not yet available. Unless funds are immediately directed to support the transition from the emergency phase to self sustained recovery, the urgent needs of thousands of returnees will go unaddressed, creating conditions ripe for renewed humanitarian emergencies and renewed conflict.

Disparities in response to internal displacement

As indicated above, internally displaced people in Africa --- people who have had to flee their homes due to conflict but have been unable to cross an international border --- outnumber refugees by almost four to one. Yet the ability of international agencies to reach the internally displaced people and meet their basic needs remains problematic, especially when compared to the services and protection provided to refugees.

Two fundamental factors account for this discrepancy. First, while states are responsible for meeting the needs of their own people, these very states are often responsible for the conflict and oppression that is producing the displacement; they fail to respond to the needs of their own citizens on political grounds and block access by external agencies to them. Second, despite some progress in recent years at organizing the international response to internal displacement, there is still no single agency that is ultimately responsible, leading to serious gaps in assistance.

On a mission to eastern Chad in late February, Refugees International found Darfur refugees relatively well cared for in camps, despite continued security problems, but displaced Chadians neglected. Indeed, Chadians forced to flee their villages had no choice but to congregate on the outskirts of refugee camps, seeking safety and hoping to benefit from whatever meager excess assistance might be available. Virtually no international agencies were directing support to the 170,000 internally displaced Chadians. RI found a similar contrast between the assistance provided to the 40,000 Central African refugees in camps in southern Chad and that provided to the more than 200,000 Central Africans internally displaced in the northwestern part of the country. Indeed, when traveling in the region along the border with Chad in March, RI learned that Central Africans in the region occasionally sent family members to the Chad camps to access food and other basic supplies to bring back to the CAR.

In terms of Subcommittee action on this issue, I encourage members to ensure that United States policy and actions reflect the imperative of devising a more effective response to the needs of internally displaced people. USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance and the State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration have been discussing how to coordinate the U.S. response, but there is a built-in administrative obstacle as BPRM has the exclusive mandate to fund UNHCR, which is taking on an increasing role in responding to internal displacement crises. Yet it is often OFDA-funded non-governmental organizations that have the best immediate capacity to respond to the needs of the internally displaced. Subcommittee members should monitor this issue and ensure that the U.S. response is commensurate with the need, coherent, and effective.

Neglected emergencies

Refugees International is constantly struggling with the challenge of advocating for an overall humanitarian response in Africa that is meets the needs of refugees and internally displaced people wherever they may be found. The international humanitarian response, including that of the United States, is perpetually uneven. On occasion, crises in Africa capture the public imagination, leading to a response that is relatively well resourced, such as the humanitarian program in the camps in Darfur. Despite all the difficulties of working in Sudan, and the slow start-up after the atrocities in the region in 2003 and 2004, malnutrition rates in these camps today are more favorable than those that prevailed in villages in Darfur prior to the conflict.

But for every relative success, there are countless thousands of displaced people that remain neglected in countries and regions that never enter the consciousness of the public or politicians. In March I visited one such country, the Central African Republic, on a painful return journey to a place where I was a Peace Corps Volunteer thirty years ago. In the CAR, an internal political conflict has led to the displacement of more than 200,000 internally and 70,000 refugees, out of a population of four million. Yet even though awareness of the situation had risen due to its nominal relationship to the Darfur problem, the presence of humanitarian agencies was virtually nil, with only Doctors without Borders, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Italian organization COOPI implementing significant programs.

In the CAR, a relatively modest humanitarian investment of $10 million coupled with some U.S. diplomatic leadership and development efforts this year and next could forestall or avoid a much more costly emergency response later. But it is difficult to generate the awareness and the political will required to make even this modest commitment possible.

Other countries that are off the public and Congressional radar screen that would benefit from increased attention and investment include: Burundi, Chad, Guinea, and Sierra Leone.

Security and political engagement

Too often humanitarian assistance, as underfunded as it may be, is the primary means for powerful countries to engage with African problems. At Refugees International we try not to be naïve humanitarians. We know that addressing root causes and preventing future conflict are essential if the conditions that create displacement are to end. The United States needs to engage fully with Africa, in partnership with its allies and the United Nations, committing serious diplomatic resources to bring a halt to conflicts and their attendant human rights abuses.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is one place where U.S. diplomatic efforts are badly needed. Almost all new displacement in the country since the beginning of 2007 has occurred in the volatile province of North Kivu, the result of a serious mistake by the Congolese government. Rebel troops which had been fighting in North Kivu since 2004 were recently integrated into the Congolese army, but allowed to remain as cohesive units based on ethnicity. The rebel general, named Laurent Nkunda, is closely aligned with Rwanda and has committed atrocities against civilians. But instead of arresting him, the Congolese government gave him legitimacy. His troops currently wreak havoc in North Kivu, attacking civilians in the name of pursuing the FDLR, a rebel group which also originated from Rwanda and includes remnants of the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide.

The RI team currently in DRC reports that there have already been two waves of major displacement in North Kivu, which borders Rwanda and Uganda, and that a third is ongoing, signaled by the new arrival of displaced in host communities that have reached the limits of their welcome.

The key to resolving the crisis in North Kivu is Rwanda, a longstanding friend and ally of the United States in the region. Supporters of Laurent Nkunda operate freely within Rwanda, forcibly recruiting young men to fight on his side. In the meantime, Rwanda is dragging its feet on repatriating or resettling those members of the FDLR not implicated in the genocide.

The U.S. may be the only country that can constructively engage with Rwanda about its role in destabilizing eastern Congo. However, the main U.S. policy mechanism in the region, the Tripartite Plus Commission, is facilitating military action against the FDLR while ignoring Nkunda. While military pressure on the FDLR leadership is necessary to contain them, reliance on Nkunda, an accused war criminal, has unacceptable humanitarian consequences.

With greater diplomatic engagement on these issues with Rwanda, the U.S. could reduce the suffering of the Congolese people by addressing some of the root causes of insecurity with Rwanda. Until U.S. policy towards Rwanda evolves, we can expect violence in eastern DRC to continue, with more displacement, lives lost, and a continued need for funding to assist displaced people and support the UN peacekeeping mission, MONUC. Refugees International, therefore, asks Congress to hold a hearing on Rwanda’s impact on eastern DRC, with a view on to facilitating peace rather than war in the region.

United Nations peacekeeping efforts in Africa have played an important role in creating improved security conditions that make it possible for refugees and internally displaced families to return home. Six of the UN’s fifteen peacekeeping missions are currently functioning in Africa at a cost of $3.4 billion: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Eritrea and southern Sudan. The U.S. has recognized the significant role that peacekeeping operations can have on ending conflict, bringing about the implementation of negotiated peace agreements, separating conflicting parties, disarming and demobilizing forces, particularly militias and irregular forces, and holding elections and restoring the rule of law.

Peacekeeping is expensive, but not as expensive or as damaging as war. The U.S., unfortunately, while supporting the creation and operation of these missions, has fallen behind in paying its agreed share of the costs. The President’s budget for FY 2008 requested only $1.11 billion for contributions to international peacekeeping (CIPA) while the State Department estimated the need as $1.8 billion. The countries that provide peacekeepers for these missions expect to be reimbursed for their costs, but without full payments the U.N. cannot pay these countries in a timely manner, thus making it harder to recruit new military forces and police.