‘‘Despite the continent’s own social, economic and security challenges, African governments and people have kept borders, doors and hearts open to millions in need. Africa has set the gold standard for solidarity on refugee response”. These were the words of the United Nations Secretary- General António Guterres during the African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa in last February.
At the end of 2018, there were roughly 7.4 million refugees and asylum seekers in Africa. This is 10 times more refugees than in 1969 when the then Organization of African Unity (OAU) adopted the Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa. Ratified by 46 of the AU’s 55 member states, the convention is one of the most widely accepted regional treaties in Africa.
It has substantially shaped African refugee policymaking and practice in four key areas:
Its broadened definition of a refugee: The definition includes factors beyond those in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention that may force people to flee, for example ‘external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order.’ This provision has informed national refugee laws of several African countries including Angola, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. Refugees who have obtained protection due to the expanded definition include those fleeing South Sudan and Somalia.
Informing the prima facie approach to refugee status determination: An individual’s refugee status is recognised on the basis of a presumption of inclusion within the relevant refugee definition. This is especially relevant to Africa where conflict remains the leading driver of refugees, and the previously used individual determination method can overwhelm host states.
Creating a platform for ‘open- door policies’ of African countries: The convention is credited with laying the foundation for African states’ generosity in hosting large numbers of refugees. In 2017, African countries were among the world’s top 10 refugee hosts, including Uganda, Ethiopia and Sudan. These countries are qualified to receive resources from the World Bank International Development Association as they are amongst the poorest globally. Given that most African refugees flee to neighbouring countries, the openness of these states to host is significant.
Providing a template for burden and responsibility sharing: The convention provides a template for regional burden and responsibility sharing which was considered ‘innovative for its time’. Article II (4) states that ‘where a member state finds difficulty in continuing to grant asylum to refugees, it can appeal directly to other member states and through the OAU now AU, and such other member states shall in the spirit of African solidarity and international cooperation take appropriate measures to lighten the burden of the member state granting asylum’.
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