African governments and refugee activists hope a ground-breaking refugee forum will deliver much-needed funding and voice to a region whose challenges are often eclipsed by more headline-grabbing crises.
Two decades ago, John Bolinga fled his hometown of Goma, in Democratic Republic of Congo’s restive northeast.
“Rebels came and attacked our home so my father was shot dead. So I had to run to Uganda,” Bolinga said.
He started out destitute, but eventually launched his own NGO in Kampala, which today helps women and children who like himself, were uprooted by violence.
He is sharing his story in Geneva, where countries are meeting for a first-ever global refugee forum. Here and elsewhere, Bolinga says, giving refugees a voice and active role in decisions that affect their lives is critical.
“The challenge is if refugees feel they’re not welcomed,” Bolinaa said, “and also the root causes which is making refugees to flee their countries is not tackled, there is going to be a crisis.”
Africa is a leading exporter of refugees. They count among the millions making perilous journeys across the Sahara and Mediterranean for a better life in Europe … which often isn’t realized. But Africa also shelters more than one-quarter of the world’s displaced people.
Critics note that some African countries severely restrict refugees’ opportunities. Still these nations are opening doors that others slam shut.
“African governments continue to carry the extra responsibility on behalf of all of us, in hosting refugees in keeping borders open,” Ambassador Mohamed Abdi Affey said.
The official is Horn of Africa special envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which is hosting this forum.
“While we appreciate more spotlight and attention to other refugee cases like Syria and Yemen, Affey said. “… the ones in the Horn of Africa particularly, the ones who have been with us for 30 years, risk being forgotten.”
Those demands join broader calls here for wealthy nations and the private sector to do more for poorer countries that together host more than 80% of the world’s refugees.
It’s coming from countries like Ethiopia, which hosts roughly one million refugees from 26 nations. Fisseha Meseret Kindie is director of humanitarian assistance and development at Ethiopia’s Agency for Refugees and Returnees.
“We are in shortage of finance, we cannot help them. And shortage of money,” Kindie said. “And we need the support from the international community at large.”
Some feel the page may be turning here in Geneva. Cameroon representative Tirlamo Norbert Wirnkar from Cameroon, which hosts more than 400,000 refugees, is optimistic this meeting will make a difference.
“We are really hopeful that pledges are going to be made on both sides — by the international community and host countries,” Wirnkar said.