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June 20, 2013

UNHCR: Africa Refugee Crisis Overshadowed by Syria

by Lisa Schlein

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says the plight of millions of refugees and displaced people in Africa is being overshadowed by the crisis in Syria. To mark World Refugee day, the UNHCR is appealing to the international community to remember that Africans who are forcibly displaced by conflict also are in need of support.

​​The U.N. refugee agency reports there are more than 45 million refugees and internally displaced people around the world.  This is the highest level of displacement since the Rwanda genocide and breakup of the former Yugoslavia in 1994 caused millions of people to flee their homes.

UNHCR spokesman, Adrian Edwards, says conflict is the primary cause of displacement.

“Over the last year in particular, the big game changer has been Syria.  Syria went from being the major refugee hosting country of the Middle East to last year being one of the top five refugee and displacement producing countries of the world," said Edwards. "This year it is number one.  That is a very alarming turnaround and that makes a major change in the global displacement picture."

​​As a continent, the UNHCR says Africa is the second largest producer of displacement in the world.  Asia, largely because of Afghanistan, is the biggest.  Currently, Africa has 2.8 million refugees and some 10 million internally displaced people.

While these numbers are huge, Edwards says the drama of crises like that occurring in Syria tend to eclipse other ongoing crises.

“You have, just in the last year some very serious refugee crises - some new ones and some continuing ones in Africa.  You have the Mali situation.  You have a big crisis in Central African Republic," he said. "Now we are seeing recent displacement across borders from northeast Nigeria.  We continue to have Africa’s world war - the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  There are, having said all that, some glimmers of hope in the situation and some positives that have happened over the last year."

Last year, Edwards says a number of long-running refugee crises in Africa came to an end.  He says more than one-quarter of a million people were voluntarily repatriated to their homes of origin in Angola, Burundi, Ivory Coast, the DRC and Liberia. 

He says there are hopeful signs that Somali refugees might one day begin returning to the homes they fled years ago.  But that, he adds, will only happen if the country continues down the path of peace and stability.