The East African Community and the Refugee Question

'The question on the lips of many community refugees is what their status will be under an East African Federation. Will community citizens, under a regime that allows for freedom of movement and mobility of labour still be regarded as refugees within the Federation? ... Globally, there seems a consensus among states on finding durable solutions to refugee situations.  Whether this consensus translates to tangible policies and practices is another question entirely'.

by Kenechukwu C. Esom

According to the World Refugee Survey 2009 statistics, the five East African Community States host a combined population of 949,000 refugees. Of this number, about 300,000 are citizens of East African States living as refugees in the territory of other Community member States. As conflicts in traditional refugee-producing Community member states abate and their citizens return home, conflict in previously tranquil states like Kenya have injected more refugees into the Community pool. Globally, there seems a consensus among states on finding durable solutions to refugee situations and minimizing the circumstances that forcibly displace people and force them to cross international borders in search of refuge. Whether this consensus translates to tangible policies and practices is another question entirely.

On the occasion of this year's World Refugee Day commemorations, the global focus is on creating conditions that make it conducive for refugees to return home in dignity and creating situations that enable them to make their countries of asylum as much 'home' as possible. At a sub-regional level, efforts are in full gear to implement the East African Community, an economic and political entity which aims to 'improve the standard of living of the population' and 'promoting the sustainable development of the region with a view to creating a prosperous, internationally competitive, secure, stable and politically united' entity. It is important to note that no economic or political community can truly attain this lofty goal while ignoring the question of forced displacements and the status of refugees.

It is worrisome that in the 120-paged 'Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community', the word 'refugee' is mentioned only twice in Article 124 (4), (5)(h) which respectively provide that 'Partner states undertake to establish common mechanisms for the management of refugees'. Little or nothing more, has been done to give effect to this Treaty commitment, instead the EAC has witnessed an increase in number of refugees being generated from Community member states owing to bad governance, flagrant abuse and disrespect for human rights, political and ethnic persecution among others. The region has also increased intolerance towards refugees, a greater willingness by member states to deny asylum to citizens of community member states and to deport asylum seekers to situation where their safety from abuse and torture is less than guaranteed as well as political manoeuvring by certain states to frustrate efforts by their citizens to gain asylum in other states. The question on the lips of many community refugees is what their status will be under an East African Federation. Will community citizens, under a regime that allows for freedom of movement and mobility of labour still be regarded as refugees within the Federation? The lack of initiatives towards the establishment of a refugee regime within the EAC leaves much scepticism as to how much thought is actually going into the implementation of the EAC and the formation of the Federation.

As states like Rwanda and Burundi explore avenues to invoke a cessation of refugee status for their citizens and the states hosting them seem eager to repatriate these refugees back to their countries, care must be taken to avoid creating situations that will precipitate further conflict and generate more refugees. EAC member states should rather begin to take steps towards creating a community where every community citizen irrespective of nationality will feel safe and able to actualize his/her full potential. While Community member states plan towards establishing a common mechanism for the management of refugees, individual member states should show their commitment to this Treaty obligation by changing or amending laws and policies that restrict access to employment, social services and naturalization for refugees. The greatest challenge facing refugees in the East African region today is an inability to attain self-reliance because of laws and policies which quarantine them in refugee camps, deny them access to employment and consequently economic independence, and condemn them to live in perpetual limbo by denying them a chance to naturalization which is constitutionally guaranteed to other categories of aliens. Until these legal and political impediments are addressed the idea of an East African Community where community citizens live prosperous, secure and stable lives will remain a mirage.

The question of refugees within an economic and political union should not be one to be viewed with suspicion by Community member states; East Africa will not be the first economic community to deal with the question of refugee community citizens. The 16-state Economic Community of West African States [ECOWAS] has succeeded in establishing an economic union where community citizen reside freely and safely in community member states. ECOWAS has also taken very practical steps to address the issue of refugees within that Community. These steps include the adoption of the Protocol relating to the Free Movement of Persons, Residence and Establishment and its four supplementary Protocols [collectively known as the Free Movement Protocols]. Together, these Protocols create a regime which - grants community citizens the right to enter and reside in member states; provide valid travel documents to their citizens; grant community citizens the right of residence for the purpose of seeking and carrying out income-earning employment; ensures appropriate treatment for persons being expelled; places an obligation on ECOWAS states not to expel Community citizens en masse; and limit the grounds for individual expulsion to reasons of national security, public order or morality, public health or non-fulfilment of an essential condition of residence. Similarly, ECOWAS by a Memorandum of Understanding with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR has agreed to cooperate on measure to guarantee the full enjoyment of the rights of community refugees as other community citizens.

It is recommended that the East African Community borrows a leaf from other economic and political communities that have developed policies and effective refugee regimes in order to ensure the regionís refugee situation does not become the neglected element that defeats the idea of a stable, prosperous and united East African Community.

 

Kenechukwu C. Esom is Head of the Legal and Psychosocial Department, Refugee Law Project, Faculty of Law, Makerere University Kampala.

Photo credit: UN Photo/Flickr