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Refugees crisis a threat to regional stability

By | June 20th 2009

Saturday is World Refugee Day, a time to reflect on the problems of 42 million people forcibly uprooted from their homes.

They have fled their homes due to conflict or persecution. But this is made worse by the conditions in which they find themselves in exile.

Refugees face a shortage or lack of the essentials of life — clean water, food, sanitation, shelter, healthcare and protection from violence and abuse. It is, therefore, befitting that this year’s World Refugee Day theme is ‘Real People, Real Needs’.

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations agency that works with the people uprooted from their countries, says this is a critical time because of the world economic crisis.

The threat of reduced aid to the UN agency is real, with the consequences that this would have on refugee populations.

Despite UNHCR and other initiatives, refugees’ basic needs are far from being met. Most refugee camps are in rural areas, but the number of urban refugees is growing.

Discrimination against refugees is another blot in their lives. Uprooted from home and unwelcome in exile, they live on the fringe. Quite often, they are suspected of vices that happen in the neighbourhoods.

The phenomenon of internally displaced people (IDP) is also assuming frightening proportions. About two-thirds of the world’s forcibly uprooted people are IDPs. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), the world had 26 million IDPs last year. The UN refugee agency cares for 14.4 million, more than the 10.5 million refugees of concern to UNHCR.

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Of 14.4 million IDPs, 4.6 million are newly displaced.

Kenya now has the two types of refugees. For many decades, conflicts in neighbouring countries have driven many refugees to Kenya, which was perceived as an island of peace in a sea of turbulence.

In the 1970s, refugees moved in from Uganda and in the 1980s from Sudan, Burundi and Rwanda. In the 1990s to date, Somalia has been the single largest source of refugees in Kenya. Recent reports say about 7,000 refugees cross to Kenya from the war-torn country every month. They head to camps in North Eastern Province. Congestion at the Dadaab camp has become a major concern due to poor living conditions. About 50,000 of the refugees are to be moved to Kakuma in Turkana District.

But the spectre of IDPs hit home last year when violence erupted over the 2007 disputed presidential election. More than 350,000 people were displaced.

The country has spent hefty resources to resettle IDPs and reconcile communities.

The lessons are clear — peace in Kenya and the region is paramount if the problem of refugees is to be resolved or reduced.

And history backs this up. IDPs in Kenya began to return home only after a peace deal was signed on February 28, last year, and the Grand Coalition Government set up.

Ugandan refugees were able to return only after Uganda stabilised in 1986, Rwandans after 1994 and South Sudanese after 2005. Somalia has not had stability since 1991 and this has spawned rogue militias who have made the country ungovernable. Neither the 2004 Transitional Federal Government set up in Kenya nor the current one has brought peace. As a result, refugees keep crossing the border.

Africa, the UN and the world must not give up on Somalia. The search for peace must continue for therein lies the solution to the refugee influx.

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