Africa: Continent Moves to Settle IDP Crisis

Kampala — Uganda is playing host to a special gathering of the African Union on refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons at a conference aptly dubbed the Kampala Summit.

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Speke Resort Munyonyo, venue for the 2007 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, has provided the perfect setting for at least 600 officials, including ministers and experts from the United Nations and international relief agencies, to concentrate on the Summit's main agenda: the challenges of forced displacement in Africa.

It is a subject telling of the predicament several African nations find themselves in today as millions of African citizens endure suffering and humiliation as refugees and IDPs. It appears Uganda's choice as host nation, a decision taken by the AU in 2007, was inspired by the country's experience in dealing with IDPs.

Uganda struggles

For the last two decades, Uganda has been grappling with the problem of IDPs, who totalled 1.8 million at the height of the Lord's Resistance Army insurgency in northern and eastern Uganda.

Prof. Tarsis Kabwegyere, the minister responsible for relief and refugee issues, admitted that, "Uganda's progressive policies in addressing the plight of IDPs and refugees" played a major role in the decision to pick Kampala as host for the crucial summit. Uganda is also home to at least 200,000 refugees mostly from neighbouring DR Congo, Rwanda, Somalia and Sudan. Although 20 African heads of state had been invited for the event, by yesterday evening, only five had confirmed attendance. The leaders begin jetting into the country today.

However, the summit has attracted delegates from at least 36 African nations.

In discussing the challenges of forced displacement in Africa, the delegates will come up with a draft of the AU Convention on IDPs and refugees to be named the Kampala Convention, which will be the first binding international instrument on internal displacement having such a continental shape. Such is the significance of the Summit but the overriding expectation from participants is adoption of workable solutions to a problem often created by internal conflicts and natural disasters.

AU apportions blame

At Monday's opening of the Summit, AU Commissioner for Political Affairs Julia Dolly blamed the refugee and IDP crisis in Africa to poor governance, in a candid speech that moved to implore and inspire delegates in making the most of five days of negotiations.

Ms Dolly, who was speaking ahead of Thursday's Heads of State Summit, expected to be officially opened by Libyan Leader and current AU chairman Muammar Gaddafi, cautioned African leaders to put much emphasis on economic development and also to work towards formulating strategies to ensure food security on the continent.

"Whilst acknowledging the sad reality that population displacements will be with us for the future, it will be sadder if we do not act individually and collectively on this common challenge we face," Ms Dolly said. "As we move forward during this meeting, we must remain mindful of an urgent need for adopting and rectifying a collective frame work for IDPs." Ms Dolly added that it was no longer possible to argue that humanitarian assistance alone can resolve the issue of IDPs and said the matter requires concerted effort that can lead to lasting solutions.

Its a shame, says Nsibambi

Prime Minister Apolo Nsibambi told the delegates that it was unacceptable that Africa continues to be the world's biggest producer of refugees and IDPs despite more than 50 years of independence. "Majority of Africans have become displaced due to reasons like earthquakes, drought, violation of human rights, political and economic marginalisation, conflict over natural resources and governance challenges," he said.

Prof. Nsibambi also said the refugee and IDP crisis was hindering the development of Africa. "The inability to effectively protect, assist and find timely solutions to the problems that created these displacement situations is posing a major threat to Africa's development and has serious consequences [for its] peace and stability," he warned.

Although the numbers of refugees on the continent progressively decline, the phenomenon of internal displacement appears to expand. According to official data from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees at the beginning of 2009, Africa was home to an estimated 11.6 million IDPs scattered across 19 countries. The continent also has 2.6 million refugees and asylum seekers. At the peak of the northern Uganda conflict, there were at least 1.8 million Ugandans holed up in IDP camps.

But following the signing of a ceasefire between the government and the LRA in July 2006, the country has enjoyed relative political stability which has prompted at least 1.3 million people to return to their homes.


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