Refugees in Africa – an introduction

“Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt…. “

Matthew 1: 13b.


Suddenly you hear gunfire and shouting outside your house, sounds you never heard before, so you go and look what’s the matter. You see people running away, carrying small bags and dragging their children along and making gestures and shouting ‘get away, run, they are coming…’ The noise of guns, explosions and smell of fire comes closer. What would you do, go into your house and hide, or grab a few belongings, passport, valuables and start running too and become a refugee!

This is something unimaginable in our secure Western world. European countries no longer have armies because they have to defend themselves; war or armed conflict between European countries simply has become impossible.

The chance of becoming a refugee in Africa is unfortunately so much more real.

Who is a refugee?

“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his 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..”

This definition is based on the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees which sets out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations that grant asylum. The related 1967Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees removes time and space limits, as the Convention was designed on the situation after the World War II. Currently 146 countries are party to the Convention and 145 to the Protocol as well

The Stark facts, staggering numbers of refugees – 65 mln forced to leave their homes

So65 millionpeople, and counting, had to go through the situation I described in the introduction. Literally every minute 24 people around the world are forced to leave their homes and run. That is 34,000 people a day who leave everything behind in the hope of finding safety and a better tomorrow. Among those 65 million are 22.5 million refugees, half under the age of 18.In addition are 10 million stateless people, who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights. In 2016 just 189,300 refugees were resettled.

Who cares for or is engaged with refugees?

UNHCR – the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees also called the Refugee Agency is a global organisation dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, and stateless people. It was established in 1950, and based on the situation in Europe after WWII, given a mandate of three years. Following the UN Convention on refugees, it became clear the UNHCR had to stay and continue to care for refugees ever since. UNHCR is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions, with 87 per cent from governments and the European Union.

Stichting Vluchteling – Netherlands Refugee Foundation

Stichting Vluchteling is a Dutch aid organization concentrating primarily on assisting refugees with (emergency) aid in their own region, or country till they can go home or resettle. It has been providing emergency food, shelter, safe drinking water and medical care for the past forty years. It also organizes education and professional training. They work with their partner the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in almost fifty countries.

Dutch Relief Alliance

The Dutch Relief Alliance (DRA) is a coalition of 14 Dutch aid organisations largely funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA). The structure of the DRA enables participating NGOs to respond to major international crises in a timely and effective manner.

The rising number of humanitarian disasters around the world has placed an increased burden on international aid organisations. The global increase in the number of armed conflicts – and the deepening complexity of these conflicts – is also adding to the severe strain on the existing humanitarian system. The Dutch Relief Alliance (DRA) was established to meet these challenges. The DRA members collaborate in humanitarian interventions – delivering greater impact than members operating independently.

The DRA members are: CARE Nederland; Cordaid; Dorcas; ICCO en Kerk in Actie; Oxfam Novib; Plan Nederland; Save the Children; Tear; Terre des Hommes; Stichting Vluchteling; War Child; War Trauma Foundation; World Vision; and ZOA. The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) partners with the DRA by funding Joint Reponses from the Dutch Relief Fund.

Refugees in Africa

According to UNHCR, Sub-Saharan Africa hosts more than 26 per cent of the world’s refugee population. Over 18 million people in this region are of concern to UNHCR. That number has soared in recent years, partly due to ongoing crises in the Central African Republic (CAR), Nigeria and South Sudan. It has also grown as a result of new conflicts erupting in Burundi and Yemen.

African countries host more than their fair share of refugees, like 791,600 in Ethiopia and 940,800 in Uganda. More than three years of civil war in South Sudan has forced 1.5 million people to flee into neighbouring countries, creating Africa’s largest refugee crisis and the third largest in the world after Syria and Afghanistan.

Refugees in Nigeria and Cameroon

With the Biafra crisis all but forgotten and the religious based clashes preceding the Boko Haram deadly terror insurgency, North-Eastern Nigeria has more than its share of refugees and IDP’s – Internally Displaced Persons. So many have been killed, massacred, raped, beaten, burnt, gone missing and if lucky, able to flee their homes. Of course not to mention houses and crops burnt and wells destroyed, for those fleeing, nothing to go back to.

Cameroon’s far North-region has a desert-like climate at best. The local population barely survives, though being underfed or malnourished.

Yet it is ‘home’ to a refugee population of nearly half a million, of which a four hundred thousand displaced because of Boko Haram. The remainder comes from the Central African Republic, where ethnic strife is still rife. Then comes the difficult to understand news, but reported in many media that Cameroonian troops drove a hundred thousand Nigerian refugees back across the border to the ‘nothing to go back to’ I mentioned above.

Cameroon has been a politically stable country for multiple decades, but since November 2016 when lawyers and teachers protested and threw a spanner in the works because of continued discrimination and marginalization by the central Government.

Now there are more than two hundred thousand Cameroonian refugees in South Eastern Nigeria, with a three hundred thousand awaiting registration and due to poor sanitary conditions, cholera spreading like wildfire.


The quote at the top of this article refers to refugees of just over two thousand years ago. I used it to show that refugees have been a feature of human life since the beginning of time, but that it is up to us to care and see how we can change the situation.

As world citizens we have the moral obligation to try to remove or alleviate the root causes of refugees and migration. We also are obliged to open our hearts and arms and accept refugees and migrants in our midst.

*Ato Bob is a former Dutch Diplomat who now consults with various NGO’s on African issues. He lives in Rotterdam and may be reached on