/ 12 December 2023

African governments pay lip service to the human rights of refugees

Refugees at the Dzaleka camp are being rationed and food stocks will run out unless someone comes to their aid. Kristy Siegfried, IRIN
In Africa, refugees struggle to enjoy human rights and freedoms.

In commemorating International Human Rights Day on 10 December, we should reflect on the role, importance and significance of the concept of human dignity in informing international and domestic laws. 

We should remember that human rights and freedoms are rights that everyone should enjoy simply because they are human and these rights and freedoms flow from the need to protect the human dignity of every person on an equal basis. Usually, we talk about refugee rights as if they were not human rights. 

We should recall that after World War II the international community recognised that the equal treatment of all human persons would help to prevent conflicts and human suffering. Based on this premise, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 10 December 1948. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration proclaims that “[A]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” 

Both preambles of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (UN Refugee Convention) and the 1969 AU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (AU Refugee Convention) note that the Universal Declaration “affirmed the principle that human beings shall enjoy fundamental rights and freedoms without discrimination”. By means of the principle of non-discrimination, human dignity is protected.

Two questions come to mind. One, do African countries discriminate against refugees when distributing rights and freedoms to their respective citizens? And, two, are refugees’ human dignity being protected? 

I explored these questions in depth in my chapter in the recently published book Realising Socio-Economic Rights of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Africa: Our Lives Matter

I argued that the concept of human dignity serves as the benchmark against which the observance of both human rights and refugee rights are largely measured, monitored and analysed. I demonstrated that the protection of the human dignity of refugees is always controversial as African states usually do not allocate national resources for this. Refugees are confined in camps where they lose their human dignity and the right to make decisions about their future.  

In camps they are subjected to inhuman and degrading conditions and excluded from communities, economic activities, socio-economic programmes and public services. Camps exacerbate their misery and suffering.

The confinement to camps violates international human rights principles. Both the UN Refugee Convention and the AU Refugee Convention seek to offer refugees the protection that is consistent with the principle of equality in rights and dignity by emphasising the principle of non-discrimination in their treatment. 

On International Human Rights Day, we should be mindful of the fact that, in Africa, refugees struggle to enjoy human rights and freedoms. Confined in refugee camps, they have become unwanted people. Host countries no longer respect their human dignity. 

South Africa is a case in point. Refugees who live in communities across the country remain unwelcome and undocumented and, as a result, are considered “illegal migrants”. Classifying them as illegal migrants is indeed an affront to their human dignity. Due to issues of illegality, they are viewed as criminals. 

As I argued in my chapter, refugees are, first, considered a threat to national security because meeting their socio-economic needs imposes “unnecessary” burdens on the economic growth of host countries. 

African countries have also encouraged animosity and xenophobia toward refugees because they are seen as symptomatic of the tragedy of the conflict, social disintegration and political anarchy. Consequently, they have been rejected or treated with contempt.

Second, there seems to be a connection between this treatment of refugees and the economic challenges African countries face.

That said, my findings are that asylum seeking cannot be divorced from African nations’ extreme poverty, economic crises in the continent and failed states. These factors stimulate thoughts about the exclusion of refugees from socio-economic protection. The need to exclude them is thus justified on the basis that doing so will prevent competition over (insufficient) national resources between them and citizens. As developing countries, African nations claim that they have no financial capacity to cope with the influx of asylum seekers. 

It has become the norm for African countries not to apply the broad definition of the term refugee adopted under the AU Refugee Convention. Instead, they use political criteria set forth under the UN Refugee Convention and overlook humanitarian criteria set forth under the AU Refugee Convention, thereby depriving those displaced by non-political events of protection. 

In contemporary politics, non-political refugees are termed “economic migrants”, who are viewed as undesirable people who must be returned to their home countries. 

Third, the desire to expel refugees manifests itself in xenophobic behaviour and violence fuelled by politicians who tend to blame refugees for the social ills of the country and the lack of economic growth and service delivery, even though those social ills existed before their arrival.  Xenophobia is largely the result of perceptions that refugees constitute a threat or danger to the citizens’ well-being.  

Fourth, a major increase in the number of forcibly displaced individuals led to compassion fatigue among African nations who, as a result, tried to evade their responsibilities through the adoption of national refugee policies that do not conform to the purposes and objects of international refugee treaties. 

By evading their responsibility to protect refugees, governments send a message to society that they are undesirable people which, in turn, creates tension between citizens and refugees. This also denies refugees their human rights and freedoms and worsens their suffering. 

Fifth, the human rights of refugees do not include political rights in that they are excluded by African countries from political platforms. They are usually viewed as outsiders since they do not belong to a political community. Because they do not belong to a political community, their human dignity is ignored in economic development and economic empowerment measures adopted for citizens. It becomes easy to deny the human rights and freedoms of refugees because they are not part of the electorate who can vote and hold politicians accountable.

Last, the deprivation of political rights has an impact on democratic processes which are engineered to satisfy and advance the interests of citizens that are usually defended through political forums. 

It is indeed through political forums that citizens’ views are expressed; through which they participate in decision-making processes; through which the government explains its actions and directions and through which human rights and freedoms are claimed. 

These forums are linked to, and support, the notion of good governance. This notion depends on a solid relationship between the government and members of a political community, which is established through political forums that facilitate sharing of concerns and deliberating on those concerns. 

In these forums, the voices of refugees are missing because they are excluded from political and democratic affairs of both the host country and the country of origin. Without political power to claim equality in rights and dignity, they end up living in subhuman conditions. 

Dr Callixte Kavuro is a post-doctoral research fellow in the Department of Public Law at Stellenbosch University. This article is based, in part, on his chapter The Human Dignity and the Realisation of Socio-economic Rights for Refugees in Africa in Realising Socio-Economic Rights of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Africa: Our Lives Matter (Palgrave Macmillan, 2023).