Africa's leaders mull how to handle refugees

Most African meetings are dominated by issues related to calamities—wars, famines and natural disasters that plague the crisis-prone continent.

Now Africa’s technocrats and politicians are at it again, converging in the Ugandan capital Kampala to tackle one of the continent’s most pressing problems: refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs).

The special African Union (AU) summit on refugees and IDPs began on Monday and the delegates are mulling how to handle the estimated 17-million people who have fled their homes and how to stop further displacement.

Sudan, which suffered a decades-long civil war and a bloody rebellion in the Darfur province, has the largest population of IDPs at about five million.

It is not clear whether Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged war crimes in Darfur, will attend the summit despite assurances by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni that he will not be arrested if he comes.

Millions of people are also displaced in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Somalia.

On Monday, the extraordinary council of African ministers discussed and adopted a draft convention on refugees and IDPs.

The draft is expected to be endorsed by the heads of state when they arrive in Kampala for their two-day summit on Thursday.

“We have a comprehensive package of recommendations which we will present to the presidents,” said Hawa Zainabu, the AU Executive Council chairperson. “These include the protection of women, children and members of vulnerable groups who are displaced, and the rebuilding of the lives of those who return home.”

The draft also lists numerous recommendations on how to stop displacements and protect refugees.

“Wars arising from the mismanagement of states and natural calamities have continued to be major causes of population displacements,” Uganda’s minister for relief and disaster preparedness, Tarsis Kabwegyere told reporters.

“The heads of state will have to decide on the ways of preventing the forced displacement of people.”

According to Rhoda Peace Tumusiime, the AU Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture, food insecurity is one of the major causes of displacements on the continent.

“Africa is at a threshold of food security,” she said.

“Countries should double their efforts at expenditure on agriculture.”

Some countries including Malawi, she said, have made steps to reducing food insecurity, saying it has now became a net exporter of food.

According to Tumusiime, climate change must also be taken seriously by African leaders as it is one of the factors behind the displacement of populations.

“Governments in Africa must address climate change,” she said.

“It must be placed high as a priority to avoid the continual displacement of people through natural disasters.”

The summit is also striving to address the security of displaced people in foreign countries.

About 30 000 Angolan refugees who had been living for years in neighbouring DRC were recently expelled. Charity groups say that many were tortured and are now facing a humanitarian emergency in their own country.

Refugees in South Africa, most of whom had fled the political and economic chaos in Zimbabwe, have also been the victims of xenophobic attacks.

Heads of state from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Togo, Chad, Libya and Somalia are expected to attend the high-level phase of the summit, which is scheduled to be opened on Thursday by Libyan president Moammar Gadaffi.—Sapa-dpa

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