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UNHCR Concerned About Rising Hostility Towards Refugees in Africa

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says it is concerned about rising hostility among ethnic and national groups in Africa. The agency says African governments are becoming increasingly reluctant to give asylum to refugees.

The U.N. refugee agency says there are an estimated 15 million refugees in Africa, including internally displaced people and others who have fled their homes. The UNHCR cares for more than 4.5 milion of them.

UNHCR Senior Policy Adviser Khassim Diagne says some countries have been hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees for decades. He says that and other factors are increasing hostility among the various groups. "There is the host country's fatigue," he said. "As I said, this prolonged refugee situation makes people to believe that, well, 'when is this going to end?' You have factors such as competition for scarce resources, refugees competing with local populations. You have also the perception that refugees are to be blamed for the violence and some of the problems, you know, banditry, petty crimes, all this."

Tanzania is a case in point. The government has been hosting refugees since the 1970's. Currently, there are more than half a million mainly Burundian refugees living in camps in Tanzania. Another half a million refugees are living in villages scattered throughout the country.

Just a few days ago, the UNHCR publicly expressed concern about thousands of Burundian refugees who have gone home to unsafe areas under pressure from the Tanzanian authorities.

UNHCR 's Khassim Diagne says his agency opposes involuntary returns. At the same time, he says, he sympathizes with the concerns of host countries.

But, he notes there are measures countries can take to lessen their burden and make life better for the refugees. For example, two years ago, he says, Zambia launched an initiative to make refugees more self-reliant. Zambia has been giving asylum to Angolans since 1975, and now hosts about 200,000 of them. "The idea was to link refugee needs to the development agenda of, let us say, bi-lateral or multi-lateral donors," said Khassim Diagne. "So, you are putting projects that would benefit both groups. And, this will precipitate a sort of peaceful co-existence between refugees. This will participate not only in developing the area, but in enabling refugees to possess skills, which will be useful when they go back home one day."

Mr. Diagne says many problems governments have with refugees are linked to their having nothing to do in the camps all day. He says this sometimes leads to violent behavior.

He says projects such as the one in Zambia provide the refugees with meaningful work, and enables them to contribute to the local economy/ rather than just to take what it has to give.