Peace and Conflict Monitor

Reflections of Refugees in Africa
Wyclife Ong'eta Mose
December 12, 2016
Africa's numerous conflicts, including in Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Egypt, Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere, together produced immense forced displacement totals in 2014, on a scale only marginally lower than in the Middle East (UNHCR, 2015). Women, men, and children have been consigned to foreign countries for safety where their indispensable needs of humanity are becoming a luxury. Furthermore, the definition of one as a refugee has caused more exclusion of non-state communities as well as expansion of their dehumanization.This paper will explore the status of refugees in Africa in terms of legal environment, communication, schooling and livelihood. This will be a desk top review taking qualitative approaches. It will draw information from previous surveys, reports, journals, books, and case studies.


Wars, conflict and persecution have forced more people than at any other time to flee their homes and seek refuge and safety elsewhere (UNHCR, 2015 report). The report shows that the number of people forcibly displaced at the end of 2014 had risen to a staggering 59.5 million compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago. One in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. Africa's numerous conflicts, including in Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere, together produced immense forced displacement totals in 2014, on a scale only marginally lower than in the Middle East. In all, Sub-Saharan Africa saw 3.7 million refugees and 11.4 million internally displaced people, 4.5 million of whom were newly displaced in 2014 (UNHCR, 2015).

Refugee problem is a social problem with national, regional, and global dimension; its roots being biblical. Kuruk (1987) reflects the phenomenon has been a recognizable feature of human society for ages. Some descriptions of banished, uprooted or displaced persons can be found in various religious, literary and historical accounts. Schafer (2002) echo fleeing from war and genocide is never easy. The decision to run is usually made with little or no advance planning, in times of extreme stress and social disorganization. Zolberg, Suhrke and Aguayo, 1986) points that refugee phenomena in Africa will continue to appear because most of the countries involved are in the throes of great social and political transformations that unavoidably entail types of social conflicts that generate violence, including classic persecutions, and which people seek to escape by fleeing, sometimes abroad.

In Africa, Ensor (2013) notes that nefarious consequences of the denial of diversity have been made painfully evident in many of the conflict-affected regions or countries where difference was the source of the persecution, exclusion, and marginalization that forced millions of refugees and other displaced groups to flee their countries. Some sources of these conflicts are purely internal, ethnic or religious and some reflect the dynamics of the regional and global economy while others are linked to bad governance and environmental degradation (Kumssa, HerbertWilliams, Jones and Des Marais, 2014). The outcomes of this violence and forced migrations are myriad ranging from the physical, educational, social, familial to psychological. Again some refugees may be nutritionally challenged, physically unhealthy, economically disadvantaged as well as displaced, and some may suffer from often-repetitive traumatising experiences (Lamaro et al., 2004).

While in foreign land, refugees particularly in Africa have adopted similar strategies as they develop such activities for which there is scope in their present environment Preston (1991). He further notes that whatever the future relevance for these activities, they reveal the need of refugee-seekers to structure and occupy their time, themselves reducing the risk of disruptive behaviour. In these activities, they seek assistance which affords some opportunities to enrich their lives and prospects. Assistance with health, education, income-generation and diversified substance production are all sought, as refugees and asylum seekers attempt to build around themselves community institutions within which they can develop and prepare for the future. It is against this backdrop this paper has interrogated lives of refugees in Africa.

Legal Frameworks

Following the Second World War in Europe, United Nations (UN) was obliged to come up with 1951 refugee convention to cushion people from far-reaching devastating impacts of war. The convention provided the criteria for people to be classified as refugees. For one to receive a refugee status, there was a determination of well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; one to be outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it. However, in Shacknove (1985) work it is argued that persecution is a sufficient, but not a necessary, condition for severing of the normal social bond. It accounts for the absence of the state protection under tyrannical conditions where a government is predatory but says nothing about the opposite, chaotic, extreme where a government or society has, for all practical purposes ceased to exist. Persecution is but one of the manifestations of a broader phenomenon: the absence of the state protection of the citizen’s basic needs constituting the full and complete negation of the society and the basis of refugee hood.

According to 1951 convention, the Contracting States shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory the most favourable treatment accorded to nationals of a foreign country in the same circumstances, as regards the right to engage in wage-earning employment. They should be accorded the right to education other than elementary education as well as those who hold recognized diplomas by the competent authorities of that State, and who are desirous of practising a liberal profession, is given treatment as favourable as possible and, in any event, not less favourable than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances. Nonetheless, full implementation of the convention has remained a mirage among the refugees as the host states are increasingly unenthusiastic about it.

Kuruk (1987), however, noted that African refugees who flee because of civil wars, acts of foreign aggression, and drought, are not covered under the Convention's definition. Thus, definition under the UN Convention can be viewed as a compromise arrived at by the international community to improve the legal framework regulating refugees. The temporal, geographic, and causative factor restrictions it contains clearly reflect such a compromise. He adds that the drafters fervently wanted to provide protection for thousands of Europeans who had been strewn outside their home countries as a result of the violent events of the war; the concern to protect their citizens and communities from the evils of an inevitable influx of an indeterminate number of refugees; and an attempt to limit the number of refugees by restricting refugee protection only to political refugees who had been affected by pre- 1951 events. Environmental degradation and natural disasters were also not taken into consideration (Epule, Peng, Lepage, 2014). As such, Africa Union (AU) convention of 1969 addressed some of the above legal shortcomings as well as widened its scope to cover satisfactorily an African context.

Refugee and Livelihood

In Africa and the world at large, the refugee habitual residence has become the spatial manifestation of the state of exception, which is, in turn, the defining characteristic of our times (Herz, 2013). The author ably gives an illustration of Algeria where most of the refugees lives in camps located in remote dry lands, distant from most economic, cultural, or social exchanges. This condition of exile within humanitarian enclaves, in which the refugee is reduced to a given number of litres of water and calories per day and to their biological existence, is said to have become the norm and to serve specific interests in a globalized world. Furthermore, refugees were not allowed to express themselves politically and without the right to take on work or employment outside the camps, they are often reduced to mere recipients of welfare, condemned to a life of waiting, dependent on the action of others in what Kumssa, HerbertWilliams, Jones and Des Marais (2014) call un enabling environment to improve their overall socioeconomic conditions and well-being.

In Uganda, despite existence of refugee settlements for decades, refugees’ conditions for economic survival are unfavourable, thus subjecting refugees to rely heavily on food aid. With settlements located in relatively remote and impoverished areas, employment and other income-generating opportunities are increasingly lacking (Kaiser, 2006). The fact that they are considered as foreigners makes it difficult for them to have access and control over farming land within their host community. Equally, the refugees do not have access to adequate economic or financial capital, the capital base such as cash, savings, and other economic assets, including production equipment, which is essential for pursuing any livelihood strategy (Teye and Yebleh, 2014). In Kenya, refugees from the Great Lakes and Sudan felt that lack of access to employment and basic services; in particular health and education prevented their integration. Moreover, the fact that many have to conceal their identity and status to avoid discrimination largely prevents them from feeling fully assimilated (Pavanello, Elhawary and Pantuliano, 2010).

In Living Without Economic Assets: Livelihoods of Liberian Refugees in the Buduburam Camp, Ghana, Teye and Yebleh (2014) established that of the total number of 115 respondents, 56 (48.7 %) were employed, while 59 (51.3 %) were not working at the time of the survey. Majority (85.7 %) of those who were employed were working in the informal sector. The women were mainly working as petty traders, food vendors, dressmakers, and hair dressers. On the other hand, the men were mostly working as artisans, petty traders, and labourers in the construction sector. However, some of the university graduates who were working stated that the work they were doing was far lower than their qualifications. Although the country is relatively economically stronger than most West African countries, rapid population growth, urbanization, and lack of jobs in urban centers had contributed to a pool of unemployed youth. This situation has increasingly confronted educated and skilled women and men alike in refugee camps in Africa.

Regrettably, the earlier case studies have shown that non-state communities in some host countries most often have experienced the burden of inflation of prices for goods and services provided. In Kenya, it was found that urban refugees were charged more than Kenyans for goods and services offered. In a qualitative study, some Congolese refugees felt that they were perceived by Kenyans as being wealthy since they come from a country rich in minerals, and because of the ‘fashionable’ way they dressed. They were therefore often asked to pay higher rents and other expenses related to housing. Somalis are also charged more, as they are often perceived by the wider Kenyan population as being successful entrepreneurs or in receipt of remittances (Pavanello, Elhawary and Pantuliano, 2010). Equally, in a meeting with some of non-state communities in Uganda, Congolese refugees claimed that the host communities overpriced goods and services with the belief that they were affluent considering their country of origin is rich in mineral resources. For South Sudanese, they claimed that learning institutions levied highly their children in the one hand, and on the other, the landlords had magnified rates expanding widely their vulnerability.

Whereas negotiating their daily lives, the majority of refugees have experienced a plethora of challenges that have deprived their well-being. In obtaining the fuel, refugees are faced with challenges such as that of walking long distances to obtain the fuel, personal security, scarcity of fuel as the population increases, and high prices of fuel, especially for those who have to purchase charcoal or firewood. Women fetching firewood are often raped, making it difficult for them to go out to fetch firewood (Kumssa, HerbertWilliams, Jones and Des Marais, 2014). The authors further noted that host communities have expressed dissatisfaction over refugees cutting trees at an alarming rate to build shelters and for firewood, thereby depleting the natural resources and exacerbating environmental degradation.

Regardless of the challenges experienced by refugees, they have remained resilient and survived over the years because of the support they have been receiving from friends, churches, NGOs, and relatives (Teye and Yebleh, 2014) as well as being creative and innovative, exemplified by their utilization of available resources and expertise to enhance lives. This has prompted me to ask: Can we understand the refugees in a different way? Can we tap refugees’ potentials or talents or skills to grow the economies of the host states? In Pavanello, Elhawary and Pantuliano (2010) research Kenyan communities living in Eastleigh, an areas mostly inhabited by urban refugees felt that the area had developed into a vibrant business and commercial hub. Refugees were not perceived as a ‘burden’ on the local economy, and there was appreciation of the opportunities refugees provided for local economic growth. Similarly, in Algeria, a considerable number of Sahrawis started working in Algeria or in Spain, thus regularly sending money back to their families in the camps. These remittances made it possible for their families to invest in shops and other businesses such as car repair, shops, or in a small service economy made of barber shops, photography labs, or video game stalls growing the economy of Algeria (Herz, 2013). Furthermore, the presence of United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR) and other humanitarian organizations to serve refugees has brought infrastructure developments such as hospitals, banks, schools, roads and so on. Thus, the local economy has improved in terms of the availability of essential products and infrastructure services (Kumssa, HerbertWilliams, Jones and Des Marais, 2014).

Refugee and Language

In Warriner (2007) issues of language, race, ethnicity, class, gender, and international politics prominent and consequential in refugees’ movement across borders, and their claims to particular services such as high-quality english-language instruction and their abilities to secure a job that provides a liveable wage are challenged daily. Pavanello, Elhawary and Pantuliano (2010) provided an illustration of great lakes refugees living in Kenya, despite their apparent linguistic, cultural and physical similarities with Kenyans, they have suffered discrimination, hostility and verbal abuse, often stemming from the perception that they are unfairly benefiting from NGO and UN support systems. Moreover, language barriers (Congolese- French, Ugandan-English, Sudanese-Arabic), lack of knowledge of their rights and how to uphold them, fears of exposure and previous traumatic encounters with police authorities in their countries of origin or in the host country make refugees very nervous around the authorities and the host communities.

In Ghana, Teye and Yebleh (2014) work is explicit that language barrier presented a huge challenge among refugees to secure liveable employment opportunities. The authors demonstrated some Liberian women failure or inability to speak the Ghanaian local languages, especially Twi and Ga, made it difficult for them to be employed in the retail sector. However, men who were not able to speak the local languages could still work as artisans or labourers in the construction industry, since such jobs did not require much communication with customers. In obtaining goods and services there was a communication breakdown between the buyer and the seller depriving refugees the primary needs of humanity. One of the Somalia refugees I met in Uganda had this to say, “In Uganda we are not comfortable; we are suffering because of language.”

Preston (1991) lamented refugees, particularly school going age has missed salient induction courses for example, native language courses, the subject-content of which informs students about the life and culture of their host country. She adds that within schools, the level at which refugee children perform is related to the extent to which they are competent users of the medium of instruction, while ethnic schools use mother-tongue languages through which to ensure the transmission of cultures of places of origin. It is vital if the host countries can take the issue of language seriously to ensure that all people with refugee status are equipped with native language skills as away to enhance their lives.

Whereas writing about repatriation: its role in resolving Africa's refugee dilemma, Rogge and Akol (1989) shared an insight of language fences that are created when refugees return from areas where different lingua-francas existed. Refugee children in particular may have become completely educated in the language of their asylum state and therefore need to readjust to the language of their home area. These problems are vividly illustrated in the Eastern Sudan, where Eritrean and Tigrean refugee children are educated in Arabic using a Sudanese curriculum. Its unimaginable how readily and speedily such refugees would be able to adjust to an Amharic dominated society if they were to repatriate. In this case, the refugee communities are confronted with a dilemma; however, it is the responsibility of parents to ensure children are learning their mother tongue as a way of preserving their culture and identity.

Refugee and Education

Education reinforce popular support for the state, preparing people to work according to their abilities and aptitudes, within and in association with state institutions, and ultimately to boost economic growth (Preston, 1991). Preston further comments that the educational experience provided to serve this objectives is perceived by recipients to improve their own understanding, and so the quality of their lives, not least because it enables them to compete for status within the differentiated economic and social environments of the state. Waters and LeBlanc (2005) expounds that education is key to the operation of the modern state, both in the present and into the future. Schooling is essential for refugees or any other citizen considering it seeks to create a common understanding of identity in terms of what is imagined as legitimate expressions of nationalism, patriotism, and economic activity. It restores hope and dignity of refugees who have been driven from their homes due to conflict and environmental degradation. It helps them to get back on their feet and build a better future (Kumssa, HerbertWilliams, Jones and Des Marais, 2014).

Whereas researching about refugees at Kakuma in Kenya, Kumssa, HerbertWilliams, Jones and Des Marais (2014) found that the education levels in the region are low compared to the rest of the country and worse in the refugee camps. The majority of the people in the area only have primary level education, and very few have college level education. Most members of the community took their children to schools in the camp. The conditions of the classrooms were appalling. The refugee population comprised Sudanese (78.55%), Somalis (16.6%), and Ethiopians (3.25%). Rwandese, Burundians, Congolese, Eritreans, and Central African, collectively formed the remaining 1.59% of the refugee population (Ochieng’, 2014). Equally in Ghana, Teye and Yebleh (2014) found that 24 (20.1 %) of Liberian refugees studied had acquired some form of tertiary education, while 57 (49.6 %) of them had been educated up to the secondary level. Nine (7.8 %) of the respondents had no formal education.

Inopportunely, peace scholars have pointed out that the kind of education that is offered to refugees is defective in some sense, Waters and LeBlanc (2005) has argued that education is always embedded in political judgments, about values that are only poorly defined in refugee populations in the one hand, and on the other, schooling is inherently embedded in broader issues of individual and economic development that for refugee populations are inherently unclear and often unimaginable. The authors reiterate that planning for this kind of education is often done “for” refugees by external actors like the host country, United Nations relief agencies, and nongovernmental organizations, rather than “with” refugees themselves. This is attributable to how international communities have perceived refugees as people who do not have their own state, thus there is inherent uncertainty about in which society they should socialize their children as members. As a result, issues taken for granted in “normal” societies such as language choice, history, gender, and religion become a focus for contention within the community itself, host country education ministries, and the humanitarian relief community.

In Preston (1991) research it is unequivocal that prime concern of refugees is to provide primary education for children. The intention for such schools may be to compensate for educational careers that have been interrupted, often for a number of years, following either the disruption of educational services in countries of origin or a protracted period of time between flight and settlement. Moreover, reliant on past educational experience and their own resources, teachers in such schools strive to reproduce the curriculum and administrative system of the country they have left, even in cases where opposition to the regime responsible for such systems was the underlying cause of their flight. In other words, Pavanello, Elhawary and Pantuliano (2010) proffer that some refugees prefer to send their children to schools based on the curriculum and language of the country of origin, as in the case of Great Lakes refugees. This perhaps is attributable to the wish of a great many refugees to see their original country being stable as they return to contribute to its political and social-cultural development.

In Perched on Saharan Desert of Southern Algeria, Herz (2013), however, pointed refugees in camps have developed and implemented an educational curriculum that has met the needs of refugee communities and the host communities alike. He aptly gave an illustration of Sahrawis who had reached a level of education measured by literacy and schooling rate and a level of health measured by life expectancy that surpass those of most countries of the Maghreb. He argues further that the loss of the homeland has led to a system bringing emancipation to a refugee nation. One can thus envisage the camps as a sort of training ground, where Sahrawi society can develop educational ideas and concepts, discuss the kind of education system it wants to establish, and learn about public health and the provision of medical services. This reinforces the argument that we should redefine the concept refugee to bring out its positive outlook and what refugees can do when the environment is enabling to grow economies and prosperity of people.

Redefinition of a Refugee

According to Shacknove (1985) the term refugee conjures up a melange of bleak images: a teeming boat adrift on the South China Sea, a bloated child in Bangladesh, a shantytown reduced to rubble in Beirut, an impoverished child in Africa. Shacknove argues further that refugees are, in essence, persons whose incumbent primary needs are unprotected by their country of origin, who have no remaining recourse other than to seek international restitution of their needs, and who are so situated that international assistance is possible. This definition of refugees as vulnerable people, people who have lost human dignity; people at losing end have caused them far-reaching dehumanization experiences.

Unequivocally, being a refugee is not simply crossing the border or the red sea. There is a disconnection of one’s belonging, detachment of one’ cultural values and so on. It is something people had to manage, had to come to terms to while in a foreign land. These are people enduring suffering, people with lots of courage to cross their country of origin. We need to understand that refugees are human beings moving from their original countries due to wars, famine, floods, persecutions, and so on and they have undergone a lot of traumatic experiences that needs our attention. Thus, there is need to redefine the term refugee in some way to rejuvenate self identity of non-state populace. This partly, has the potential to shrink the widespread global chasm of marginalization among non-state communities as well as enhance their humanization as an infinitely important segment of humanity.


As it has been discussed in this article, refugee hood is a status that can happen to anyone, it has no boundaries and it is not a damaging weakness, but it can be a resource to promote life. Instructively, it is widely acknowledged that violence or war generates refugees as an inescapable fact of life. So the most important question we should ask as members sharing the bond of humanity: How can we deal with any phenomena that can result to refugees in Africa? How can we learn to respect others in their differences? How can we build countries that accept differences? How can we introduce the language of morals or social good and basic trusts? Thus, it is the responsibility of global citizens and governments to provide non-state communities with relieve to overcome an avalanche of shock, suffering, trauma, humiliation and inhospitable realities experienced in their home countries as well as buttress the belief that we all belong to one family called the human family. As such, I suggest that policy directive that seek to unshackle lives of refugees or to disorient indifferences should focus on conflict prevention, management, and peace building techniques, as well as building their capacity in new skills for alternative livelihood creation, sustainable resource management, diverse language skills, and provision of quality and accessible education (Kumssa, HerbertWilliams, Jones and Des Marais, 2014). These will in turn, provide non-state communities with an assurance of the future full of prosperity and a great sense of belonging.


The author has suggested the following recommendations to promote lives of refugees:

  1. There is need for governments and humanitarian organizations to promote advocacy strategies that enlighten host country citizens about their responsibilities towards promoting lives of refugees. This can be done through community outreach and resource sharing;
  2. Humanitarian organizations and governments should build capacities of refugees to be independent and self-reliant through provision of vocational trainings, supporting access to employment opportunities as well as acquisition of local language skills;
  3. Humanitarian organizations should empower refugees on proposal writing and resource mobilization skills to enhance their lives; and,
  4. There is need to redefine the term refugee as a way to foster the values of human dignity, diversity, and inclusivity.


My sincere gratitude go to CEDAR and Equator Peace Academy for providing me an opportunity to get experiences of non-state communities in Uganda where the idea about this essay was conceived.


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Wyclife Mose holds a Bachelor Degree in Education Science with specialization in physics and mathematics and Master’s degree in Education. He is currently pursuing Ph.D. programme in Peace Studies at University for Peace (UPEACE), Costa Rica. Wyclife has written work on Africa regional conflict complex, disability issues in education, gender and higher education, and gender based violence. His research interests and projects include mapping conflict dynamics, conflict prevention, higher education, leadership, and sustainable peace and development