The 32nd African Union (AU) summit kicked off on Thursday last week in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. According to the African Union website, 2019 is “the year of refugees, returnees and internally displaced persons.” Leaders from the 55 member states will gather to find sustainable solutions to forced displacement in Africa, African Daily Voice reports. The new leader of AU to succeed President Paul Kagame will also be announced and is expected to be Egyptian President Adbel Fattah el-Sisi.
The summit is timely as the region faces the precarious task of tackling the growing refugee crisis. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), Africa hosts approximately 37 percent of the global refugee and internally displaced population. Ongoing crises in African countries such as South Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo are creating even more refugees, and Uganda, Sudan and Ethiopia are all in the top ten countries hosting the most refugees globally, Al Jazeera reports. Human rights groups have been pushing for African governments to address the refugee crisis. Achiend Akina is the executive director of the Pan African Citizens Network, a group which campaigns for human rights and democracy in Africa. Akena told Al Jazeera “Africa needs to do better in integrating refugees and allowing them to work…[they] need to live a life of dignity.” The AU’s specific plans have yet to be disclosed, but details of the passport for all African countries will be revealed. According to Al Jazeera, the not yet named passport will replace existing national passports and is a bid to implement free movement of people across the 55 African states.
Free movement could be beneficial for the region for many reasons, particularly economic development. According to the International Monetary Fund, Europe saw a 6 percent decrease in unemployment from free movement in the EU. Tourism within the region should also increase, as it did when Seychelles ended visas for African nationals, writes the African Development Bank. The benefits of the passport could give governments the capital they need to help refugees and internally displaced people. However, experts say it could be years before the passport is released. Many are sceptical of the summit’s success, as the AU is notorious for its lack of response to widespread human rights violations, Al Jazeera writes. The biggest issue for the refugee crisis is a lack of funding, and as Akena put it: “African Union member states will not suddenly find money to give to refugees.” According to Al Jazeera, China has recently invested heavily in the region, focusing on the extractive industry, infrastructure, construction, electricity, manufacturing and finance. While these investments promise to provide the region the economic boost it needs to develop economically and socially, the AU may have to ask its new ally for financial assistance for refugees in the short term. According to the World Bank, China lifted about 800 million people out of poverty over 40 years and has an impressive history of rapid economic development. China has also shown commitment to African’s social development, with five peacekeeping missions and ongoing grants given to missions in Somalia and South Sudan. It is plausible the powerhouse will be willing to help, as social development benefits their business interests.
It will be interesting to hear how the AU proposes to address the migration crisis on the 10th and 11th, and whether their plans are feasible. While free movement has its benefits, it will not help the tens of millions of refugees and displaced people right now. This is a highly complex issue with no short-term solution, and unfortunately it may be that economic development comes before social issues can be addressed.