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U.N.’s Refugee Mission in Africa Is ‘Fighting Fires’ as Funding Falls Short

As conflicts spiral out of control across the African continent, the U.N.'s refugee chief in Africa thinks that without funding, more refugees will link up with extremists or seek passage to Europe.

JAW, SOUTH SUDAN - JULY 2:  Sudanese refugees walk along the border road after crossing from North Sudan carrying their possessions July 2, 2012 in Jaw, South Sudan. Many refugees walk from four days to two weeks, fleeing the on-going conflict, to get to Yida refugee camp from the Nuba mountain region where they have no food. The Yida refugee camp has swollen to nearly 60,000 people as the refugees flee from South Kordofan in North Sudan, with 300-600 people arriving daily. The rainy season has increased the numbers of sick children suffering from Diarrhea and severe malnutrition, as the international aid community struggles to provide basic assistance to the growing population. Most have arrive with only the clothes they are wearing. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
JAW, SOUTH SUDAN - JULY 2: Sudanese refugees walk along the border road after crossing from North Sudan carrying their possessions July 2, 2012 in Jaw, South Sudan. Many refugees walk from four days to two weeks, fleeing the on-going conflict, to get to Yida refugee camp from the Nuba mountain region where they have no food. The Yida refugee camp has swollen to nearly 60,000 people as the refugees flee from South Kordofan in North Sudan, with 300-600 people arriving daily. The rainy season has increased the numbers of sick children suffering from Diarrhea and severe malnutrition, as the international aid community struggles to provide basic assistance to the growing population. Most have arrive with only the clothes they are wearing. (Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Overcrowding, malnutrition, sexual violence, and contagious disease: These are just a few of the concerns the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ Africa bureau has to consider as it houses and feeds millions of refugees each year.

But according to the bureau’s director, Valentin Tapsoba, this year’s staggering lack of funding means African refugees are now also at an unusually high risk for being recruited into extremism or coerced into taking dangerous pathways to Europe.

In an interview this week in Washington, Tapsoba told Foreign Policy his mission has received just under one-third of the $2.7 billion it requested for 2015. And it’s that lack of resources — and thus inability of the UNHCR to tend to the refugees’ basic needs — that could push those living in the camps to flee.

“You are fighting fires here and there, and there is nothing that you could do to give dignity to the refugees,” Tapsoba said.

This year, UNHCR will divide up what little it has to serve those displaced by conflict across the continent, whether by civil upheaval in Central African Republic, Boko Haram’s insurgency in and around Lake Chad, war and famine in South Sudan, or most recently, political unrest in Burundi.

The number of refugees is mind-boggling, and intricate networks of armed groups threaten to further destabilize these already fragile regions. Militants ranging from big jihadi organizations like Boko Haram and al-Shabab to smaller rebel factions like the M23 and Allied Democratic Forces lurk not far from the camps in many of the countries where refugees are housed.

From South Sudan, 683,000 have fled to nearby Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, and Sudan. In Nigeria, the onslaught of Boko Haram in the country’s north has internally displaced more than a million people, and forced tens of thousands into neighboring Cameroon, Chad, and Niger — all three of which are already dealing with their own IDPs from the same conflict.

But what Tapsoba called “the biggest headache for the Africa bureau” is also what he identifies as a largely forgotten conflict: the crisis in CAR.

That conflict, which sparked when Seleka rebels overthrew the country’s acting government in 2013, soon spiraled into a full-fledged civil war. But it was quickly forgotten when the West turned to the rise of Boko Haram in nearby Nigeria. Today, on top of the country’s 426,000 internally displaced, the conflict in CAR has sent 465,000 refugees scattered between Cameroon, Chad, DRC, and Congo-Brazzaville.

And despite budgeting $331 million for that conflict, the country has received only 15 percent of what it needs to meet the absolute bare minimums. Of all the conflicts, it’s this one Tapsoba wants to put back on the radar “so that people really will be in a position to help.”

There are dozens of rebel and extremist factions scattered across the continent, and it’s when refugees feel their dignity has been taken away, Tapsoba said, that they might seek a renewed sense of purpose by joining up with the same extremist groups that displaced them, or with other armed groups prowling nearby.

“If you do not have a future or are not looking forward to having something where you are, then you are prone to say, ‘OK, I don’t care, I go now; even if I die, it is better,’” Tapsoba said.

Ethiopia has surpassed Kenya as home to the largest number of refugees, but even there, the many live without permanent shelter. According to Tapsoba, the UNHCR does not want refugees to live in tents for longer than six months. But the lack of funding means that at two of Ethiopia’s refugee camps, more than 80 percent of refugees are still without permanent shelter.

“The needs are there,” Tapsoba said. “And the money is not coming in.”

Tapsoba, who met with members of Congress and various humanitarian aid activists in Washington to appeal for more funding this week, told FP that the United States has been a generous donor to their bureau. It’s the same European countries frustrated by the hundreds of migrants who flock daily to their borders in rickety boats that haven’t been paying up.

“The European Union should do more … because dealing with the crisis later is going to be more expensive,” he said.

The refugees who put their lives in the hands of armed groups or traffickers are often doing so out of desperation. But with more funding, the refugee camps could offer opportunities for working adults to avoid idling and to keep children in school.

“If they come, they have lost everything,” Tapsoba said. “But they should not be losing their dignity.”

Photo credit: Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

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