By Michael Jegede
The African Union (AU) Assembly of Heads of State and Government at its 32nd Ordinary Session held on February 10 and 11, 2019, launched the AU Theme of the Year 2019: “The Year of Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: Towards Durable Solutions to Forced Displacement in Africa”.
The 2019 theme was declared by the AU Heads of State and Government in July 2018, following a recommendation from the AU Executive Council at its 29th Assembly in July 2017. It was designed to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa and tenth anniversary of the 2009 AU Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (the Kampala Convention).
The 1969 refugee convention tends to espouse the principles embedded in the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and provides a deep and extensive explanation on the issue of refugees. The Kampala Convention was fashioned by the AU as a response to the increasing crisis of internal displacement on the African continent and the need to frontally tackle the root causes. The AU, thus, decided to further raise global attention to the issue of forced migration in Africa, and awaken the consciousness and commitment of member states towards these two important treaties, with its choice of the 2019 theme.
For decades, African leaders have come to grips with forced displacement. The African continent has the highest number of forced migrants worldwide. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) current estimates, an unprecedented 70.8 million people around the world have been forced from their homes. Among them are 41.3 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), 25.9 million refugees and 3.5 million asylum seekers. Africa with a population of 1.3 billion accounts for one-third of the world figure for forced migrants, which includes 6.3 million refugees and 14.5 million IDPs.
Forced migration could arise from several factors. The International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) describes it as “a general term that refers to the movement of refugees and internally displaced people (those displaced by conflicts) as well as people displaced by natural or environmental disasters, chemical or nuclear disasters, famine, or development projects”.
The Pan-African Parliament (PAP), since the commencement of the year, has been working closely with some AU organs and United Nations (UN) affiliates involved in the 2019 theme of the AU, to identify and understand the root causes of the current situation, with a view to protecting refugees, returnees and IDPs in Africa and offering solutions to the hardships they are confronted with.
PAP which is one of the principal organs of the AU, made up of five representatives from the national parliament of each Member State, was established to provide a common legislative platform for the African people.
The goals of the continental parliament headquartered in Midrand, South Africa, are to: Facilitate the effective implementation of the policies and objectives of the African Union; Promote the principle of human rights and democracy in Africa; Encourage good governance, transparency and accountability in Member States; Familiarize the peoples of Africa with the objectives and policies on the political and socio-economic integration of the continent; Promote peace, security and stability; Facilitate cooperation and development in Africa; Strengthen continental solidarity and build a sense of common destiny among the peoples of Africa and Encourage National and Regional Parliaments to ratify and integrate treaties adopted by the AU into their legal systems.
At the committee meetings of PAP in March, the continental parliamentarians had a special session to discuss the issue of forced migration. Senior Regional Protection Officer for UNHCR, George Kuchio, who was invited to make a presentation on “Migrants, Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons: An outlook on the current situation in Africa”, enjoined regional bodies to rethink how they can deal with the challenge of forced displacement on the Continent.
Hon. Mc Henry Venaani, the Chairperson of the Committee on Trade, Customs and Immigration Matters said: “The search for durable and sustainable solutions to forced displacement constitutes an important task to all of us. There is an urgent need to work with African states and various partners to further enhance national capacities to fulfill and implement responsibilities towards sustainable solutions to forced migration on the Continent.”
At a special segment with stakeholders (such as representatives from the AU, UNHCR, Red Cross, regional economic communities) during the Second Ordinary Session of PAP’s Fifth Parliament held in May, where discussions centred on the AU’s 2019 theme, the African parliamentary body signed an important Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with UNHCR. The MoU, aimed at strengthening cooperation with the UN Refugee Agency, was part of PAP’s efforts to contribute towards the improvement of the lives and protection of the right of refugees and displaced persons.
Under the MoU, PAP and UNHCR will develop a joint Plan of Action to advance the areas of collaboration and conduct joint research and work to spread awareness and exchange information. The MoU was signed by PAP’s President Roger Nkodo Dang and UNHCR Representative to the AU and the UN Economic Commission for Africa, Cosmas Chanda.
After signing the MoU, Dang remarked: “I am happy that we reached this agreement to extend our cooperation in the field of refugees, IDPs and statelessness. I welcome the support of UNHCR and hope that we will be able to work to raise awareness of forced displacement among members of the PAP. PAP Parliamentarians are particularly looking forward to UNHCR facilitating their field visits to refugee camps.”
On his part, Chanda said: “This is an important development for us, one which reflects the important role that we believe parliamentarians can play in influencing governments and helping to find durable solutions to one of the most challenging issues the world is facing.”
Hon. Stars Mathe of Nkayi South Constituency of Zimbabwe and a member of the continental parliament, in an interview, stated: “After being in the session, I believe Africa has a job to do and we have to make sure that as Africans we come together and agree to a common rule that will be passed on to all African parliaments to help avoid the root causes of displacements in our countries in Africa. We should not be talking about displaced people and how they are suffering when we cannot address the root cause. For people to end up being refugees and displaced people it is because of political misunderstanding and opposing religious beliefs – there is our failure as Africa to handle disputes which most of the time erupt the issues.”
At the end of the Second Ordinary Session of the Fifth Parliament, PAP in its resolutions adopted on May 17, resolved to: “Support the commitment by the African Union’s Assembly of Heads of State and Government, made at its 32nd Ordinary Session, to take bold and effective political leadership to resolve conflicts in Africa through policies and strategies that strengthen national systems and structures that prevent conflicts and displacement on the continent;
Call on their Members to effectively contribute to the eradication of structural sources and drivers of conflict, including corruption, extreme poverty, gender inequality and other forms of discrimination, human rights violations, low political participation, organized crime, resource mismanagement, rule of law issues and youth unemployment;
Encourage Members of Parliament to deploy their lawmaking and oversight role for the ratification of the 1969 OAU Refugee Convention and the Kampala Convention without reservations that would take away the humanitarian substance of these legal instruments;
Support the request by the African Union’s Assembly of Heads of States and Governments, made at its 32nd Ordinary Session, that the African Union Commission work with Member States and relevant partners to ensure access to education for refugee, returnee, internally displaced and stateless children in Africa.”
The following month, PAP organized a commemorative event in Midrand to mark the World Refugee Day (June 20), in conjunction with the Department of Home Affairs of the Republic of South Africa, the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) and UNHCR. World Refugee Day is celebrated annually to honour the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homes under threats of persecution, conflict, violence and disaster.
Michael Jegede, a journalist and public affairs commentator writes from Abuja, Nigeria
While addressing attendees to open the panel discussions at the event which hosted prominent dignitaries, refugees and different organizations, the 4th Vice President of the African legislative assembly, Hon. Chief Fortune Charumbira, reminded parliamentarians about their mandate in line with the AU 2019 theme, to help change situations leading people to involuntarily migrate.
Hear Charumbira: “As we consider the responsibility for Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced people today, Honourable Members, Excellencies, Distinguished guests we should consider what the problem is, distinguish between symptoms and causes in order to identify the solutions that will help us solve these problems. As this task is upon us, Honourable Members, Excellencies, Distinguished guests, we must do this with honesty and clarity and based on the facts as they present themselves today.
“Refugees have left their home escaping inhumane conditions, the consequences of natural disaster or political persecution, have suffered loss of family members and loss of their home and their land, they have seen death, experienced injustice and fear, have suffered maltreatment, torture and sexual violence; they are traumatised. The numbers of refugees are increasing, with less food and clean water. Many of the young refugees, who find no opportunities for training and work, move on, hoping that they will be able to ameliorate their situation. They are further exposed to abuse, exploitation, extortion, kidnapping for ransom and modern slavery.”
In furtherance of its resolve to raise awareness about AU treaties and policies on forced displacement, PAP hosted the 10th Conference of Speakers of African Assemblies and Senates and Meeting of Clerks of African Parliaments under the 2019 theme in August. The two groups in their separate deliberations expressed deep concern over the serious challenges facing refugees, asylum seekers and displaced people, and aligned with the resolutions of PAP on the 2019 AU theme as adopted at the Second Ordinary Session of the Fifth Parliament.
The African parliamentary body is billed to hold its Third Ordinary Session of the Fifth Parliament from the 7th to 19th of October, 2019. Again, the focus of the continental legislators will be on issues concerning forced migration, as the session is expected to be held under the 2019 AU theme: “The Year of Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons: Towards Durable Solutions to Forced Displacement in Africa”.
The Third Ordinary Session of the Fifth Parliament of PAP is coming on the heels of the new wave of deadly xenophobic attacks on foreign nationals of African descent living in South Africa. It is therefore hoped that the African lawmakers, would critically examine the matter in their discussions, and come up with suggestions that will help curb these acts of violence that have led to the displacement of helpless migrants, destruction of property, loss of precious lives and sources of livelihood.
Fellow African citizens who are targets of the renewed xenophobic onslaught have been forced to flee the country for fear of further attacks. 1004 Nigerians, for instance, registered to return home, according to the Consul-General, Nigerian High Commission in South Africa, Mr. Godwin Adama. About 500 of them have so far been evacuated back to Nigeria.
Also, around 850 people were said to have taken refuge in halls put up for foreigners dislodged by xenophobic violence in the Johannesburg region. Over 500 Mozambicans and 250 Zimbabweans and Malawians were reportedly placed in the halls. About 100 Zimbabweans, 76 Malawians and 153 Mozambicans have now returned to their home countries from South Africa.
Michael Jegede, a journalist and public affairs commentator writes from Abuja, Nigeria