Refugees are forced migrants, people driven from their homelands by violence, fear, or other conditions that make it impossible for them to remain. Throughout the history of Africa, famine, disease, war, environmental disasters, and competition for resources have created refugees by causing people to flee from troubled areas. In the past, most refugees eventually settled in the regions to which they fled. Since the 1980s, however, African nations and international aid agencies have viewed refugees as people who will eventually be repatriated, or returned to their native countries. As a result, some displaced Africans have spent years in refugee camps originally meant to provide temporary shelter.


Causes of Forced Migration

In precolonial Africa, warfare caused much migration and population resettlement. Chain reactions occurred, in which the people displaced by a conflict went on to displace other groups. For example, conflicts with the ZULU drove the NDEBELE people from southern Africa into what is now western ZIMBABWE. As they fled, the Ndebele displaced the SHONA. Tensions still exist between the Ndebele and other groups who consider themselves the original inhabitants of the land. Similar situations have occurred across Africa.

From as early as the A.D. 800s, the SLAVE TRADE was another major cause of involuntary population movements. Over the next thousand years, the trade took millions of Africans away from the continent and made others flee the operations of slave raiders and traders. Even after slavery had officially ended, competition among European powers for trade, influence, and territory in Africa continued to disrupt African communities. White colonists drove Africans off their land. They also required tax payments that forced Africans to seek wage labor, sometimes traveling great distances to work in agriculture or mining.

Beginning in the mid-1900s, Africa’s European colonies became independent states. Many won their independence through wars that produced refugees. The new national boundaries corresponded to the old colonial borders that Europeans had drawn with little regard for the identities or relations of the various ETHNIC GROUPS within them. In the modern era, a number of wars have been fought over national borders. In addition, civil wars have erupted as various groups within nations have tried to secede. All of these conflicts have produced refugees. Racial, religious, and ethnic differences have also created refugees.

Apartheid forcibly uprooted millions of people within SOUTH AFRICA and forced thousands of others to seek safety outside the country. After the Jewish state of Israel declared its independence in 1948, EGYPT became involved in hostilities between Arab states and Israel, and thousands of Jews fled Egypt for Israel, Europe, or the Americas. Thousands of other Jews left the former French colonies of MOROCCO, TUNISIA, and ALGERIA for Israel or France.

Many of the newly independent African states forcibly drove out minority groups. UGANDA, for example, expelled 40,000 Asians in 1972 and more than 500,000 members of African minority groups in the 1980s. SIERRA LEONE expelled Ghanaians; GHANA expelled migrant workers who came from NIGERIA, NIGER, and Upper Volta (present-day BURKINA FASO); and in 1989 MAURITANIA began violently expelling its black population. During the 1990s hundreds of thousands of people belonging to the Hutu and Tutsi groups fled bloody ethnic warfare in RWANDA and BURUNDI. In SOMALIA several factors combined to drive people from their homes: a series of droughts in the 1970s and 1980s, conflicts over the border with Ethiopia, and the Somali civil war, which began in 1991.

Treatment of Refugees

Over the centuries most African refugees settled among their hosts and every African society developed some way of absorbing the strangers. In modern Africa, however, poverty and political conflicts have undermined the ability and willingness of nations to make these involuntary migrants part of their communities. A 1969 agreement of the ORGANIZATION OF AFRICAN UNITY (OAU) governs the status of refugees in Africa. The agreement, which defines a refugee as someone forced to seek safety outside his or her country of origin, reflects the concerns of states seeking to control their borders and their populations. The OAU agreement forbids states to forcibly repatriate refugees, but it includes provision for voluntary repatriation. This wording has encouraged the African nations to regard refugee status as temporary.

African countries rely on international aid to feed and supply their refugee populations, which are often quite large. The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) oversees many aid programs. Its policy is to settle refugees in camps where they can easily be counted and where food and other aid can be most conveniently distributed. To receive UNHCR aid, African states have had to discourage refugees from settling in local communities. In some cases they have used army troops to force refugees into camps.

The UNHCR’s encampment policy was intended to make refugees self-sufficient. But it has not achieved this goal, and since the early 1980s the organization has increasingly promoted repatriation. A few countries, however, have rejected the policies of encampment and repatriation in favor of more traditional ways of dealing with refugees. Both Sierra Leone and GUINEA have turned down offers of international aid administered by the UNHCR. Instead, both nations have absorbed large numbers of refugees from wars in neighboring countries, incorporating the newcomers into their national economies. With millions of people on the continent coping with forced displacement, African nations and the international aid community face the challenge of finding ways to solve the problem that meet the needs of states and also respect the rights of refugees. (See also Diaspora, African; Genocide and ViolenceHuman Rights; United Nations in Africa; Warfare.)