What Protection for Refugees Really Means
Over the past two decades, international refugee policies have set out to address some of the urgent needs in ensuring that refugees are protected after being forced to leave their homes. This includes the right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries where physical safety, as well as civil, political, economic, and social rights, can be upkept, to ensure that refugees do not face expulsion once again. According to the UNHCR’s latest Global Trends report, 85% of the world’s refugees are hosted in the Global South, often in the first country refugees get to after leaving their own borders. This means that many are directly across the border from their country of origin—for example, Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where some 94,000 Eritrean refugees were living in four camps near the border. Many of these refugees were forced to flee their homes, either because of Eritrea’s mandatory and often indefinite national conscription, or due to political or other persecution.
This status quo presents a number of issues. Firstly, supporting new arrivals can put new and complex demands on host countries. For this reason, various development actors, such as the European Union Trust Fund for Africa and the World Bank, provide funds to African countries that host refugees. This aims to help “share the burden” between Global South and Global North countries through financial support. Ethiopia, as one of the top refugee-hosting countries in the African continent, is among the beneficiaries of this funding.
However, amid the recent conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, the protection of Eritrean refugees was compromised. Some 20,000 Eritrean refugees are still unaccounted for, after fighting erupted in November, and the Hitsats and Shimelba Refugee Camps became battlegrounds. Once again, these refugees were at risk and forced to seek safety.
This highlights another major issue: countries of first asylum are not always the best equipped to protect refugees. One concern is providing asylum so close to the border with the refugees’ country of origin. This can leave them vulnerable to geopolitical circumstances and jeopardizes refugee protection.
The current situation facing refugees in Ethiopia not only raises alarms regarding the humanitarian system’s assurance of protecting refugees, but also presents questions regarding global refugee policies that have dominated this discourse for the past two decades. There is a need to revisit the policies and search for better alternatives.
The first policy that should be reviewed is encampment. The literature on the subject has long deemed camps obsolete (especially in protracted displacement situations). Refugee camps inherently contradict integration work and do not truly offer a long-term solution. Yet the second decade of the twenty-first century has seen new camps opened despite UNHCR’s move to promoting a settlement approach, as is done in Kenya and Uganda, in locations like Kalobeyei and Palorinya, two settlements where IsraAID is active. In these settlements, refugees live among their host communities and receive plots of land which they can cultivate and use to build businesses, which, in turn, contribute to the local economy.
In Ethiopia, refugees are granted full freedom of movement; however, for the most part, refugees are still living in camps. A more refined policy will move away from camps altogether and advocate for free dispersal of refugees and integration in communities in mixed villages, towns, and settlements, instead of in remote border camps. This will allow refugees to access more opportunities: from jobs to education to increased interactions with their host communities.
Refugee policies should also allow these individuals to move freely within the region and settle further away from their countries of origin. The East African Community is known for allowing freedom of movement between its member states, and the African Union and is planning to roll out an African Union passport which will allow free movement within the continent. These are absolutely necessary to ensure that refugees can choose the safest place to seek asylum.
Furthermore, in recent years, calls have been voiced to reinstate the Nansen Passport of World War I, which would allow complete freedom of movement for refugees across the globe. In addition, Global North countries should increase their resettlement quotas. The world now looks to the new Biden administration to expand the US resettlement program that previously faced cuts.
Moreover, humanitarian organizations should promote refugee protection outside of camp settings. In addition to IsraAID’s work in Uganda and Kenya’s settlements, we conduct these types of interventions in other more urban displacement contexts, such as Colombia, Greece, and Germany. Humanitarian organizations should see that refugees are not unintentionally incentivized to remain in remote and unsafe locations where access to aid is centralized. Aid should be dispersed even where refugees are not as easily identified or distinguished from surrounding host communities, who should benefit equally from any assistance directed towards refugees. This is essential to truly promote integration, and create long-term, sustainable solutions to displacement around the globe.
Since 2013, Or Mor has worked in community development in refugee settings, first in Israel, and later in East Africa. Before joining IsraAID, he worked with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and HIAS, and co-founded the Jerusalem African Community Center. He served as IsraAID’s Country Director in Kenya and Uganda before moving to his current role as Programs Officer for IsraAID’s Africa Region. Or has a B.A. in Philosophy and Comparative Literature and an M.A. in Development Studies.