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An African Union summit on refugees has opened with a plea for governments to take a greater role in responding to the plight of the millions of people forcibly displaced by conflicts. From the summit site the Ugandan capital, Kampala, our correspondent reports a poor turnout of heads of state was countered by a strong presence of international humanitarian agencies.
U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres opened the gathering on a positive note, pointing out the number of refugees in Africa is 2.3 million. That is down considerably from the highs reached in recent decades.
But he lamented the drop in refugee numbers has been more than offset by a sharp increase in the numbers uprooted from their homes by conflicts inside their own countries. These so-called IDPs are flocking to African cities that are ill-prepared to meet their needs.
"Refugees and people internally displaced by conflict or by natural disasters more and more often live side by side, facing the same hardship, misery and threat to their security and basic human dignity," said Guterres. "Many stay in camps, but more and more today refugees and internally displaced are settling in Africa's burgeoning cities where they compete with poorer locals for very limited economic opportunities and scarce services. Often lacking documentation and a legal identity, they are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation."
The summit host, Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, charged efforts to resolve Africa's conflicts have often been hampered by what he called 'a lack of seriousness' on the part of outside mediators. In an apparent reference to European and American mediation efforts in places such as Darfur, the Ugandan leader said such initiatives can do more harm than good.
"Many of these actors they are superficial in their approach to conflict resolution," said Museveni. "They mostly misdiagnose the causes and therefore prescribe wrong medicines. Hence, the conflicts are never resolved in many cases. Or if they are resolved they are not resolved satisfactorily."
Humanitarian agency heads attending the summit say the convention on IDPs to be signed at this summit is a big step forward in Africa's attempt to come to grips with one of its most enduring challenges. AU Peace and Security Commissioner Ramtane Lamamra says the convention that would be legally binding on states, as well as on armed rebel factions.
"This is a convention which is enriching the international humanitarian law," said Lamamra. "It is going beyond what we have now in the existing instruments. So additional obligations will be put on the shoulders of member states, but as I said, also shoulders of armed groups because they are an integral part of the conflict situation throughout the continent."
Sources close to the drafting process say they expect 15 African legislatures to ratify the convention within months, meaning it could go into force almost immediately.
But while it was enthusiastically endorsed by humanitarian groups, delegates say support from Africa's leaders was disappointing. Other than Mr. Museveni, only five heads of state attended, led by Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe, Zambia's Rupiah Banda and Somalia's President Sheikh Sharif Ahmed.