Eastern Africa: Expanding refugee protection, 60 years after the adoption of the Geneva Convention
20 June 2011

With the more liberal refugee laws and practice in Uganda, and assistance from NGOs like JRS, many refugees and their families are able to get back on their feet again, Kampala, Uganda (Peter Balleis SJ/ JRS)
By September 2010, the number of Somali refugees in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia exceeded 430,000, reflecting the unequal burden borne by states in the region.
Nairobi, 20 June 2011 – Despite the 'temporary nature' of international protection envisaged by the refugee convention, 60 years after its formal adoption, the refugee problem not only still exists, if anything it has become more complex. Over the years the forms of and actors responsible for persecution have changed, exacerbated by political, social and economic injustices, by both state and non-state actors worldwide.

Even though interpretations of the refugee convention have evolved – to include gender and sexual based violence and persecution carried out by non-state actors, such as armed groups – the focus on individual persecution and the exclusion of serious social and economic human rights violations poses a serious problem in eastern Africa.

This definition, as applied to present circumstances in eastern Africa – excludes millions of people fleeing economic oppression, generalised violence and environmental disaster. This is not to say the UN convention is valueless, but that it needs to be supplemented.

African states have gone a step further than the 1951 UN Convention, in recognising the changing nature of forced displacement. In accordance with the 1969 African convention, individuals displaced by conflict, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order, qualify for refugee status. Those fleeing the effects of conflict in south or central Somalia or violence caused by rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo are thus entitled to refugee recognition.

With the additional protection provided for by the 1969 African refugee convention, its ratification was a milestone for the African continent.

The 1951 convention duly affirmed the principle that "human beings shall enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms without discrimination”. This principle was included in the 1969 African convention, as well as in national refugee legislation, such as in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

This means that the right to seek asylum, the principle of non-refoulement – i.e. the right not to be returned to a country where one will face persecution –, issuance of identification and travel documents and considerations for religious and social freedoms would be guaranteed to 'all refugees', irrespective of place of residence, in camps, urban areas or settlements.


Certain rights, affirmed by the 1951 convention – such as the right to paid employment and freedom of movement – have remained contentious. Neither Ethiopia nor Kenya grants refugees the right to live outside designated areas, except under specific circumstances, such as the need to access specialised medical treatment and approved educational opportunities or for security reasons.

In practice, however, many refugees continue to live outside designated – especially urban – areas with the acquiescence of host government and the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), both of which offer them little or no assistance. While refugees have been increasingly moving to urban areas, even illicitly, governments have been slow to adapt legislation, policies and programmes to meet their needs.

However, over the last five years eastern African governments have made significant progress in addressing the challenges of refugees, particularly in urban areas. During this period, the UN refugee agency and the Ugandan, Ethiopian and Tanzanian authorities have incorporated the African convention into their refugee determination procedures.

In 2007, the Ethiopian government changed its policy on freedom of movement, livelihoods and education by allowing Eritrean refugees in receipt of financial remittances from abroad or enrolled in an educational institution to reside outside the camps.

The Ugandan government – through its 2006 Refugee Act – has also been hailed as a leader in protecting refugee rights in the region. It allows refugees to work, promotes access to property ownership and social assistance, and permits them to reside outside settlements if they can sustain themselves without state assistance.

Through the implementation of domestic legislation, incorporating the Geneva and African conventions in the region, states have made significant progress in refugee protection. This has opened up 'protection space' to thousands of people who would otherwise not have qualified for protection under the 1951 refugee convention. Importantly, the existence of a UN convention, along with its obvious shortfalls, acted as catalyst in the drawing up of the African convention.

Future challenges

Nonetheless, the challenges of full implementation remain. The hope of finding durable solutions – particularly for refugees in protracted situations such as Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans – is slowly diminishing. Refugee arrivals continue to increase, while opportunities for third-country resettlement or local integration remain dim.

By September 2010, the number of Somali refugees in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia exceeded 430,000, reflecting the unequal burden borne by states in the region. As provided for in the 1951 refugee convention, states are urged to share responsibility for refugees. The mechanisms are clear, increased: financial and programmatic support for refugees and organisations that support them, third-country resettlement places for the most vulnerable forcibly displaced persons, and aid to host governments and UNHCR.

Forced to balance competing concerns – refugee rights, border security and host population livelihood opportunities – with insufficient support from other wealthy nations, overburdened states tend to strongly view refugees as a burden rather than a benefit to their societies. The refugee problem is not the sole responsibility of a few states, but of the international family of nations.

Stella Ngumuta, Advocacy Officer, JRS Eastern Africa

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