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Asylum and refugee policies in Southern Africa: A historical perspective

2. The Refugee Problem in Southern Africa

The refugee phenomenon in the Southern African region can be attributed to main reasons namely wars of liberation from colonial and racial rules, and civil wars. At the beginning of the 1960s, thousands of refugees fled from Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique to escape the impact of armed struggles for independence. Refugees from Angola moved mainly into Congo, Zambia and Botswana while the main destinations of Mozambican refugees were Malawi, Southern Tanzania and Zambia.

The second cause of refugee flows in the Southern African region was wars of liberation from racist minority rules in the Republic of South Africa, South West Africa and Southern Rhodesia. The main host countries for these refugees were Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania and later Mozambique when it attained independence in 1975. Some refugees moved further afield to other African States, Europe and North America.2

In the 1980s, civil wars in Angola and Mozambique led to the flight of persons in the region on even on a greater scale than wars of liberation. In more recent times, civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a new Member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), has been the major course of forcible population displacement into the region.

The attainment of independence in the entire Southern African region and end of the civil war in Mozambique led to the repatriation of virtually all refugees from the relevant countries. However, the region has continued to experience a significant refugee problem as a result of the continuing conflict in Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Moreover, the region continues to host refugees from countries outside the region such as Burundi, Somalia, Sudan, and Uganda.

According to the UNHCR 2002 Global Appeal some 1,115,651 refugees and asylum seekers were projected to be in the Southern African region as of January 2002. The countries of asylum (with the number of refugees in bracket) were Angola (12,000). Botswana (5,000), DRC(337,100), Malawi (8,000) Mozambique (3,362), Namibia (25,875); South Africa (70,000); Swaziland (1,014), Tanzania (495,100), Zambia 149,800) and Zimbabwe (8,500)3. In most of these countries, the number was expected to raise by the end of the year 2002. As with all refugee figures, the above numbers must be taken to be estimates and the actual figure of asylum seekers is likely to be much higher. In addition, there are millions of internally displaced persons, the leading producers being Angola with 1,100,000 to 3,800,000 and DRC home to 1,800,0004 IDPs.

A number of observations can be made about refugee figures in the Southern African region. First, the number of refugees and asylum seekers in the region is very high. It is about a third of the total number of refugees in the whole of Africa, which stood at 3,346,000 at the end of 2000.5

Secondly, data from other sources6 indicate that the overwhelming majority of refugees in the region come from within the region, with two countries alone, Angola and DRC, accounting for over half of its refugee population.

Third, the refugees burden in the region is distributed very unevenly. For example the two countries of Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo account for almost 75% of the refugee population in the region. And these two countries with Zambia account for 88% of the refugees in the region. The fact that these major host countries share borders with the countries of origin indicates that the refugee burden falls mainly on first countries of asylum.

Finally, the presence of forced migrants in the Southern African region has had serious security, political, economic and social consequences. It is against the background of these challenges that refugee policies in the region that have been formulated from time to time must be understood.

  1. UNHCR, The State of the World Refugees 2000, p. 44.
  2. UNHCR, Global Appeal 2002, pp. 116-127.
  3. US Committee for Refugees, World Refugee Survey 2001, at p. 6
  4. Id, p. 2.
  5. Ibid.

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