SIHMA | Scalabrini Institute For Human Mobility In Africa

World Refugee Day 2020

World Refugee Day is on the 20th of June and is a day on which we commemorate the hardship, challenges and persecution of refugees and a day on which we celebrate the lives, the dignity and the resilience of Refugees across the globe. 

Refugees are not refugees by choice but rather are forced to flee their countries due to a well-founded fear of persecution or due to generalised violence or war. Refugees are a testament to the resilience of humanity and the capacity of people on the move to rebuild and to excel in life despite the difficulties and trauma of their past. 


Refugee Youth

This year SIHMA recognise and celebrate in particular the role played by young refugees who offer hope, inspire and innovate in a way that is truly admirable. See SIHMA facebook and twitter posts this week at and

Refugees around the world are making a major contribution in response to the global COVID 19 pandemic including: 

‘Fourteen-year-old Sidra Median Al-Ghothani, a Syrian refugee living in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp, [who] shows that age is no barrier to playing a part in responding to the pandemic…, she did not want to see her younger brother and her neighbour’s children fall behind when schools in the camp closed due to the coronavirus. “Students had to study using e-learning applications or televised education,” she explains. “But many students need help with these education methods, and their parents couldn’t support them, so I volunteered to teach my neighbour’s children.” ‘ (1)

Sidra and six other refugees were recognised by the UNHCR on World Refugee Day for their contribution in response to the pandemic. Another refugee in this recognised group is Djuba Alois, a 75-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo… in Kakuma… refugee camp… [who] has made it his mission to educate the uninformed… With a hand-drawn poster attached to the front of the bike and a microphone mounted on the handlebars, he pedals through the camp urging people to wash their hands. “I will create awareness every day so that people stay safe from coronavirus,” he says. (1) 

These seven including 14-year-old Sidra are in a video UNHCR has produced to commemorate World Refugee Day on 20 June… narrated by South African actor and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Nomzamo Mbatha. 29-year-old  Nomzamo Mbatha is a South African film and television actress, human rights activist, brand ambassador and businesswoman. (2). Young refugees have and are taking up opportunities to make a difference and should be given a greater voice and more opportunities. Young refugees in the AU Youth Envoy and its youth advisory council should include young refugees who help silence the guns and develop the continent (3).

Refugee Population in Africa

There are 28,7 million refugees worldwide and 6.8 million of which are on the African continent (4). The top five host countries with the highest Refugee populations in Africa are Uganda (1.4 million), Sudan (924 thousand), Ethiopia 821 thousand), DRC (537 thousand) and Kenya (488,4 thousand)(5), with Chad as the country with the highest proportion of Refugees relative to the country’s population 2.9% (6). The top five Refugee producing countries on the continent are South Sudan (2.2 Million), Somalia (905.1 thousand)  DRC (807.4 thousand), Sudan (734.9 thousand) and the Central African Republic (610.2 thousand) (7). Asylum seeker populations are small relative to refugee populations with the three countries with the highest asylum seeker populations being South Africa (188.3 thousand) Egypt (66.3 thousand) and Kenya (50.8 thousand) (8) and in terms of proportion of population that are asylum seekers the top three are Eritrea (1.1% of the population), Libya (0.7% of the population) and South Africa (0.3% of the population) (9). 68% of the Worlds refugees come from five countries with South Sudan being the African country on the list and 39% of refugees globally are hosted by five countries and Uganda is the only African country among the five (10).

Who is a Refugee?

Broadly speaking a Refugee is someone who was forced to flee their country due to a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ based on their ‘race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’ whose country is unable or unwilling to protect them and/or someone compelled to leave their habitual place of residence within their country due to ‘external aggression, occupation, foreign domination or events seriously disturbing public order’ as defined by Article 1 and 2 of the OAU Convention of 1969 (11).

Refugees from Burundi

On World Refugee Day we may also reflect on the transition of power and its impact on the creation of refugee causing situations. Political opinion is one of the most commonly if not the most commonly identified 1951 Convention ground for granting Refugee Status. In the DRC and Zimbabwe we have witnessed the change in president with both country’s former presidents responsible for the proliferation of refugees fleeing their countries under their rule (10s of thousands from Zimbabwe and 100s of thousands from the DRC) (12). In 2020, Burundi former President Nkurunziza elected not to run for a fourth term in office and instead his handpicked successor, Major General Evariste Ndayishimiye, from the same political party as the former President, was elected and was scheduled to come into office as President Nkurunziza was simultaneously due to step down from office in August 2020 (13). On the Monday 8 of June 2020, however, President Nkurunziza died at a hospital in Karuzi, eastern Burundi. while still in office as President after falling ill on Saturday 6 June 2020 (14). Burundi was ruled by Nkurunziza for 15 years during which tens of thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands of Refugees fled the country. When the constitution was amended and former President Nkurunziza started his controversial third term in office there was a series of political violence and unrest which ensued and there was an increase in number of refugees from Burundi from 72.5 thousand in 2014 to 292.8 thousand in 2015 (15).  In 2016 this figure rose to 408.1 thousand and to 439.3 thousand refugees in 2017, with 387.8 thousand in 2018 and 381.5 thousand in 2019 (15). This is a reflection of the escalation of political violence and persecution in Burundi perpetrated predominantly by the ruling party CNDD-FDD youth referred to as Imbonerakure since 2015. Imbonerakure has been responsible for ‘extrajudicial executions, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, sexual violence, beatings, and intimidation of suspected political opponents. They often targeted real or perceived political opponents or those who refused to join the ruling party’ (16). With the same political party remaining in power and little to no accountability for Imbonerakure member’s actions it is unlikely that the change in president will alter the political violence and persecution and the corresponding forced migration as people flee from Burundi. As we commemorate World Refugee Day and we may reflect on the legacy of President Nkuruziza and how history will see him (13). Additionally earlier this year, in the midst of the global pandemic, Burundi was also hard hit by severe flooding as weeks of torrential rain… hit Burundi affecting 45,000 people and sweeping away thousands of homes and businesses, leaving 18,000 people newly displaced (17).

Concluding Comments

We take time to appreciate the dignity, resilience and enormous contribution of Refugees. It is hoped that refugees on the continent will be included and integrated into communities in their host countries, will have a sense of truly belonging and will be granted some form of legislated permanent residency or that where appropriate refugees will be able to voluntarily repatriate to their country of origin. There are many situations in which regrettably repatriation is not an option and refugees must not be repatriated to safeguard the principle of non-refoulement, particularly in light of situations of protracted conflict which is regrettably quite common on the continent (eg Somalia and the Eastern DRC). We call for the protection and promotion of human rights including the right to dignity for all refugees and for bringing an end to conflict, war and persecution. Everyone can make a difference, everyone counts (18). 


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