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Africa: Talking about forced displacement

The displaced in Bulo Hawo, near the Kenyan border,KENYA, october 2009

The displaced in Bulo Hawo, near the Kenyan border

KAMPALA, 22 October 2009 (IRIN) - Civil society and government officials are gathered in the Ugandan capital of Kampala to discuss the Convention on the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Africa and a declaration on refugees, returnees and IDPs.

“It is a good convention, but the next steps are even more important,” said Dismas Nkunda of the New York-based International Refugee Rights Initiative. “The key test to the continent’s commitment to it will be the implementation.”

Countries such as Cote d’Ivoire, said Traore Wodjo of the Ivorian civil society coalition, needed to quickly implement the convention because political developments there could raise tensions, leading to renewed displacement.

“Some of those who were displaced during the 2003 conflict are yet to recover,” he added. “Forced displacement again, without protection, would completely disrupt their lives.”

The leaders at the summit, including presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed of Somalia, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Ruppiah Banda of Zambia, realize just how important is the challenge of displacement in Africa.

“Displacement is a scourge that is blighting the African landscape – and some of us are talking from experience,” said Zainab Bangura, former activist and now Sierra Leone’s foreign minister. “One day you are a minister, the next you are on a boat running for your life – with nothing on your back.”

Uganda’s Prime Minister Apolo Nsibambi, while praising his country’s policies on refugees, said: “The inability to effectively protect, assist and find timely solutions to the problems that created these displacement situations is posing a major threat to Africa’s development."

The convention, the first such global document, aims to comprehensively address the problems of Africa’s 12 million IDPs. It contains provisions on obligations of state parties relating to internal displacement and protection and assistance.

It also contains provisions on obligations relating to armed groups, the African Union, as well as obligations on sustainable returns, local integration or relocation and compensation.

“The concern is that there are already millions of laws that should protect IDPs, but they are not always observed,” Nkunda said. “So we need to ensure that this convention is respected by setting some kind of benchmarks against which we will evaluate its implementation.”

Civil society and AU role

The civil society meeting will make recommendations to the summit, which should strengthen the convention’s implementation processes, Nkunda said, and is keen to work with the AU to ensure it succeeds.

AU officials are upbeat that the summit, whose side events include an exhibition by actors in the humanitarian field, will fully explore the root causes of forced displacement in Africa and ways to prevent it.

“We are here to reflect on the specific challenges facing IDPs and to adopt an instrument that would bridge existing policy and legal gaps,” said Julia Joiner, AU political affairs commissioner.

Delegates include the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, and the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes. There is also a big NGO and government presence.

Before the summit, Holmes flew to the northern Ugandan district of Pader where most returnees are resettling in their villages. He visited IDP camps, host communities and met aid workers and local leaders.

“As emergency relief needs reduce, development efforts need to be stepped up,” he said of the Ugandan situation, where about 500,000 out of more than two million IDPs are still in camps.