Internal Displacement in West Africa: Regional Conference Calls for More Vigorous Action

June 16, 2006

West Africa is one of the sub-regions of Africa most heavily affected by displacement. While several million internally displaced persons (IDPs) have returned home or resettled with the ending of civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, large numbers remain in the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Nigeria, Senegal and Togo.

Of the more than 12 million IDPs in Africa uprooted by conflict and human rights violations, at least 1 million can be found in the fifteen countries comprising the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

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The Special Assistant to the President of Nigeria, Mrs. Moremi Soyinka-Onijala, emphasized how varied the causes of displacement are: “Some of us have large numbers of displaced persons due to wars between government and rebel forces, others have significant populations of displaced persons due to inter ethnic, religious, political and social economic conflict, while others have experienced natural disasters such as drought, floods and fire that have caused our people to flee in large numbers.”

In an effort to better address the problem, the First Regional Conference on Internal Displacement in West Africa was convened in Abuja, Nigeria from 26-28 April 2006. Hosted by the Government of Nigeria, the conference was co-sponsored by the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement, the Representative of the UN Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, ECOWAS and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The conference reviewed current trends in the ECOWAS region and developed a set of recommendations that national authorities, regional bodies and international organizations could take to better prevent and manage displacement. More than 70 participated, including officials of ECOWAS governments, representatives of national human rights institutions, the ECOWAS secretariat, local and international non-governmental organizations, UN agencies, donor governments and experts.

Olu Arowobusoye, Director of the ECOWAS Department of Humanitarian Affairs, called upon each and every ECOWAS member state “to create response mechanisms and focal points and national institutions for IDPs where they do not exist.” Among the recommendations made by the conference to governments were that they:

  • Improve data collection on internally displaced populations and their needs;
  • Develop national laws and policies on internal displacement;
  • Promote and disseminate the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement;
  • Develop programs to address the needs of host communities —while it was common practice in West Africa for IDPs to receive shelter and assistance from families and host communities, this was proving burdensome over extended periods; and
  • Undertake measures to address the root causes of displacement.

As for ECOWAS, conference participants called for the appointment of a focal point on IDPs; the training of the ECOWAS stand-by force in the Guiding Principles; increased advocacy efforts; and the promotion of stronger inter-regional dialogue on internal displacement. Walter Kälin, Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, emphasized the value of a regional approach, pointing out that “Regional cooperation enables States to increase their capacity to run reliable early warning mechanisms and disaster prevention and mitigation systems.” It can also “channel the lessons learned by countries coping with internal displacement into the creation of sound policy at the national and regional levels.”

Conference participants called upon the international community to:

  • Integrate protection issues for IDPs into the design of peace operations;
  • Strengthen the capacity of peacekeepers to respond to internal displacement;
  • Ensure that international interventions on behalf of IDPs foster self-reliance and community sustainability; and
  • Draw greater attention to the plight of IDPs through partnerships with the media.

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