Plagued by wars, terrorism, and repressive governments, sub-Saharan Africa is in the throes of a humanitarian crisis that the international community is not ready to address, witnesses testified on Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Hill last Thursday.
The number of displaced persons has reached an all-time high of 60 million, but a quarter of those are in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Of that total, 3.7 million are refugees and 11.4 million are internally displaced,” Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) stated July 9 at a Congressional hearing on “Africa’s Displaced People.” Smith chairs the Global Human Rights Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“African refugees and internally displaced people face numerous issues – from security in the places in which they seek refuge, to death and mayhem trying to reach places of refuge, to conflict with surrounding populations to warehousing that consigns generations to be born and live in foreign countries,” he continued.
Witnesses from the State Department and international humanitarian organizations testified that social chaos in sub-Saharan Africa has created a full-blown humanitarian crisis. African host countries already cannot meet the needs of refugees pouring across their borders, and the international community is also stretched thin having to address the soaring number of refugees across the world.
This creates an urgent problem, explained Natalie Eisenbarth, policy and advocacy officer for the International Rescue Committee in her testimony, because displaced persons, many of whom are women and children, are “particularly vulnerable to economic shocks, at risk of human rights violations, without access to basic services.” Once they leave home, they are dependent upon friends, family, governments, and international organizations for basic needs.
And their needs are myriad. Not only must they receive water, food, and shelter to survive, but they also face long-term problems like finding a livelihood in a new country. They also need psychological assistance, many of them having experienced severe trauma along their route or having fled violence and torture in their country of origin.
The rise of the terror group Boko Haram in Nigeria, along with the state’s military response, has displaced upto 3.2 million Nigerians. Violent conflict in South Sudan between the government and rebels – both entities have terrorized the populace through mass killings, torture, and rape – has driven masses of people into refugee camps but also into the “bush,” a wilderness area where they are completely dependent on humanitarian aid to survive.
But South Sudan, said Natalie Eisenbarth, policy and advocacy officer for the International Rescue Committee, “is a difficult aid delivery environment in the best of circumstances.”
Eritreans have suffered egregiously on their journey out of what some call the “North Korea of Africa,” noted John Stauffer of the America Team for Displaced Eritreans in his written testimony.
They flee one of the most oppressive governments in the world. The U.N. Human Rights Council in June reported “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations” to have been committed by the Eritrean government. There is “organized repression of the freedoms of opinion, expression, assembly, association and religion,” the report added.
The government forces many men and women into “abusive, essentially unpaid endless” military service, referred to by survivors as “slave labor,” Stauffer noted. Soldiers are tortured for slight infractions.
However, those fleeing Eritrea face a quagmire of hopelessness in refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia, with no positive future outlook, he continued.
Some ran into a horrific system of torture where traffickers would capture them in Sudan and sell them to Bedouins in Egypt, where they would be taken to torture camps in the Sinai Peninsula. Victims were subject to gruesome suffering while a ransom was demanded of their families.
The advent of the el-Sisi government in Egypt resulted in a greater security presence in the Sinai which helped stop the tortures, Stauffer noted.
“The plight of Eritrean refugees is so dire, so complex, so little known, and in some countries so misunderstood that it shocks all normal sensibilities,” he said in his written testimony.
Other persons decide to making the dangerous crossing to Europe through the Mediterranean, but even then many are trafficked by their smugglers and their families are forced to pay more for their release. Some are forced to pay more and board an obviously unsafe boat under threat of death.
Over 1,000 migrants have died trying to make the passage because of “gross overloading or grossly inadequate boats,” Stauffer testified.
Elsewhere in Africa, the Central African Republic was gripped by violence for two years after Muslim-supported rebels ousted the regime in March 2013 and terrorized the populace. Largely Christian militia groups formed to resist their reign of terror and have carried out violent acts of revenge. Almost a million people have been displaced there and almost a half million are living as refugees in neighboring countries.
Countries that have not seen extensive violence lately, such as Chad, have borne the burden of taking in refugees from war-torn areas. But Chad is one of the poorest countries in the world and does not have the infrastructure capable of sustaining the myriads of refugees that are pouring in by the month, said Ann Hollingsworth of Refugees International.
In addition, the World Food Program cut its rations for Sudanese refugees in Chad by 50 percent in 2014, she said. Mothers left their children for weeks on end to find work for food, putting both themselves and their children at risk of exploitation.
Ultimately, international aid must focus on the long-term needs of refugees and displaced persons on the continent, Eisenbarth argued. Parents must be able to provide for their children, and children must have access to education and professional development.
By Matt Hadro