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Asylum and refugee policies in Southern Africa: A historical perspective

6. Intra-regional burden-sharing

The other area that remains to be addressed is the question of burden sharing. Traditionally, the concept of burden-sharing has been conceived as the measures taken to relieve the burden of hosting refugees on countries of first asylum by either extending financial and material assistance to them or through relocation of some refugees to third states. This kind of burden-sharing was premised on the post 1951 paradigm of refugee policy which addressed itself only to the plight of refugees rather than dealing with the refugee problem in a holistic manner. The kind of burden-sharing is conceived here is as joint measures to address the refugee problem in holistic manner from prevention of refugee flows by addressing the root causes, to responding to refugee flows and solutions.71 And, under this approach, the focus should be on addressing the root causes of refugee flows so as to stem further flows of refugees and to enable those in exile to return home. This approach, which was endorsed by the Executive Committee of the UNHCR at its October 1998 sitting (at which many refugee hosting countries in Southern Africa are represented), is increasingly finding support in both scholarly works as well as in inter-governmental initiatives at sub regional and continental levels.

Thus, according to one renown scholar in the region, South Africa, as a former refugee generating country, has a historical responsibility to host refugees particularly those from other African countries. However, this does not mean that the country should accommodate the ever growing masses of bona-fide refugees and illegal immigrants steaming accords its borders unchecked. Rather, “coordinated effort to examine and root out the causes of these continuing refugee and migration flows is the only way to go.”72

A holistic approach to the refugee problem has also already found support at inter-governmental level within the Southern African region. In July 1996, SADC signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the UNHCR in July 1996 whose Article IV enjoins SADC and UNHCR, among other things, to:

  1. Address the social, economic, and political issues in the region, particularly those which have a bearing on the root causes of forced population displacement, refugee protection, provision of humanitarian assistance and the search for durable solutions.

  2. Establish or strengthen mechanisms, procedures and institutions at national, regional and international level, in order to create sustainable local capacity for the provision of protection and assistance to refugees and to give effect to the concept of burden sharing.
At its meeting in Maputo, Republic of Mozambique, between 28 and 29 January 1998, the SADC Council of Ministers reviewed the problem of refugees in the region and noted in particular the arrival of refugees from the war torn Great Lakes region and the implications of their presence for the security of the SADC region. The Ministers reiterated that the cornerstone of SADC was the need to support the most vulnerable peoples though regional integration based in the promotion of democracy, good governance and the respect for human rights. Thus, the Council approved the root cause approach to the refugee problem. The Council also recognised that preventive measures are not a substitute but a complement to protective measures by reaffirming it awareness of the need for establishing a regional mechanism for safeguarding the human rights of refugees.

As a practical measure to implement a comprehensive regional approach to the problem of refugees in the SADC region, the Council urged Member States to adopt measures towards the harmonisation and unification of procedures and criteria for the protection and provisions of social support of refugees. The Council also set up a working group of nine countries which it directed to come up with proposals on how best the problems of refugees can be addressed in the SADC region and to draw up a Declaration on Refugees for consideration by the Summit of SADC at its next sitting in September 1998. However, this initiative seem not to have come to fruition.

Also notable development in this regard is the recently introduced New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).73 Under the Chapter on “Peace and Security Initiative” NEPAD calls for efforts to build Africa’s capacity to manage all aspects of conflict to focus on the means necessary to strengthen existing regional and sub-regional institutions, especially in the areas of prevention, management and resolution of conflicts; peacekeeping, peacemaking and peace enforcement; post-conflict reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction; and combating the illicit proliferation of small arms, light weapons and landmines. Although these measures have a broader aim of creating conditions for development in Africa, they can, incidentally, also stem or minimise the flow of refugees and create conditions for return of those who have already fled.

The degree of success of the measures aimed at addressing the root causes of refugee flows may lender burden-sharing at the level of response unnecessary or at least not as pressing, if the number of asylum seekers and refugees in individual countries remain within the capacity of individual states to manage.
  1. On this conception of burden-sharing see Rutinwa, B., Legal Responsibilities of Countries of Origin and Third States in Refugee Situations under Public International Law, D.Phil Thesis, Oxford University, Michaelmas 1999, Chapter III, pp. 35-46.
  2. Maluwa, T., ‘The Refugee Problem in Post-Apartheid Southern Africa, Op. Cit., p. 195.
  3. For details see ttp://

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