Internal displacement has long been one of the most critical issues facing African states. The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, claims that Africa contains approximately 9.7 million internally displaced persons. The current situation facing Burundi demonstrates the problems of prolonged internal displacement, as it will have to address the return of an estimated 35,000 refugees. However, the implementation of the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons 2009 (also known as the Kampala Convention) demonstrates progress for the prevention of internal displacement, and the protection of and assistance of internally displaced persons in the future. This, in turn, represents a significant development for the commitment of the United Nations towards the protection of internally displaced persons, which can be viewed in the 1998 ‘Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement’.
In August 2012, the Tanzanian government revoked the refugee status of approximately 35,000 Burundian refugees, who had fled their country of origin almost 20 years ago due to civil war. With a deadline for their departure set for the 31st of December, there have been widespread concerns that the exodus of the Burundian refugees could culminate into a “humanitarian disaster” if they leave on masse. To begin with, approximately 3,000 of the refugees have no land to return to. 90 percent of the Burundian population already lives in the countryside. Conflict over land is already an issue, as some rural areas in Burundi have a population density of over 400 people for every square kilometre. There are fears that the refugees’ arrival could lead to further displacement within Burundi, and that many could end up with insufficient food and housing. The refugees’ return, therefore, has serious potential to aggravate the situation. Subsequently, it is clear that Burundi could struggle with the challenge of the returning refugees.
The current situation in Burundi, therefore, demonstrates the problems of the internal displacement of peoples. It is clear, therefore, that states need mechanisms ready to effectively tackle the issue. In October 2012, United Nations independent expert Chaloka Beyani reported that states should adopt and implement comprehensive frameworks to address internal displacement. These would include the enforcement of conflict resolution mechanisms, in situations such as land disputes, which could be valuable for the Burundian land problem. Beyani also recommends the adoption of preparedness and early-warning systems, in addition to capacity-building procedures that would increase the capacity of all levels of government, in order for governments to address internal displacement more effectively.
The implementation of the Kampala Convention demonstrates a significant step in this direction. The Convention came into force on the 6th of December 2012, after Swaziland became the 15th country to ratify it. The Convention requires states to undertake “specific obligations to allocate resources, adopt national policies and strategies, and enact or amend national laws to ensure that displacement is prevented, and that IDPs are protected and supported until they reach a sustainable solution to their displacement.” In this way, the Kampala Convention reflects the United Nations’ Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, and presents a valuable guide for African states to address the prevention of, preparedness for, and the finding of long-term solutions to internal displacement, as recommended by Beyani. The Convention has subsequently been praised for being the world’s first international legal framework for the protection of internally displaced persons. Beyani stated that “Africa has achieved a milestone and demonstrated its leadership in addressing one of the most pressing humanitarian issues in the world.” Similarly, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, stated that the Convention “puts Africa in a leading position when it comes to having a legal framework for protecting and helping the internally displaced.”
While the situation facing Burundi shows that internal displacement is still a serious problem for African states, the implementation of the Kampala Convention suggests that they will become better equipped to address the issue in the future. The successful, long-term implementation of the Convention will be a challenge, and it will need the pro-active engagement of African states, sub-regional institutions like the East African Community, and international financial institutions, such as the African Development Bank. However, the Kampala Convention shows that there is reason to be hopeful.