IRRI is determined to provide thought leadership on the changing dynamic of forced displacement in Africa. Africa, our core geographical focus had changed. Its political economy has changed. Its positioning within the global context has changed. The management, context and -isms around displacement, our primary thematic focus, had changed. Systems, structures and policies were also changing, and IRRI wants to ensure that we are strategically placed to make the most of the new opportunities, and proficiently respond to challenges. As aptly put by Dr Chidi Odinkalu, our Board Chair, “over time, the situation, food security, human security, climate change, governance situation, put into a mix, is likely to mean that the displacement situation and security situations in this part of the world, will need more of IRRI.”

The global refugee regime provides checklist criteria on what constitutes a refugee or forced migrant, deserving of protection and response. However, the dynamic of forced displacement in Africa has changed significantly over the past 70 years, often creating a sense for those affected by forced displacement, that the global regime is nothing more than ‘a distant weather pattern” (Landau and Amit 2014:547), in practice. For instance, IRRI’s collective research has demonstrated that the key to assisting forced migrants may not be found in either ‘return to’ or ‘reform of’ the country of origin, particularly in cases where generations of displacement have resulted in significant populations residing (semi-) permanently in third countries. Basic statistics on return migration can therefore conceal important and widespread patterns of onward movements. Alongside contributing to the potential misallocation of funds and resources for response, this feeds into a misplaced optimism that ‘return’ movements constitute a durable solution for displaced populations, and takes the pressure off the search for more innovative solutions that respond to their actual movements. The continent is developing norms and building structures for free movement of persons at regional and sub-regional levels, that could increase refugee integration towards durable solutions, and address protracted situations of displacement. However, because of the theoretical dichotomy of forced vs voluntary migration, refugees are often left out these free movement arrangements, and remain largely governed by 60-70 year-old treaties.

IRRI is  committed to ensuring that our work promotes human rights in all its aspects, that all our projects and programmes take into account intersectionalities within the beneficiary communities, and therefore ensure ethnic, religious, gender, age, ability, language, literacy, sexuality and other diversity inclusion. We recognise that asylum and exile are shaped by social constructs and thus impact on people differently. For example, women’s role as primary care givers, combined with cultural norms, impact the way they experience displacement and exile. Women’s inability to inherit in customary interpretation means women in exile continue to have lesser access to factors of production. This, compounded with the socio-economic challenges faced by displaced persons, especially in urban areas, have been cited as driving survival sex and GBV. Sexual Exploitation and Abuse, including sex for favours, and lack of access to effective sexual and reproduction health services, further entrench women’s marginalisation while in exile. Gender and sexual minorities find it particularly difficult to enjoy asylum and receive protection in countries with state-sponsored and institutionalised homophobia. IRRI is obligated to ensuring equality and inclusion in asylum determination and displacement management, and to continually engaging in discourse to address these controversial human rights issues, that most humanitarian actors shy away from.

IRRI provided an analysis of the Global Compact on Refugees with a focus on urban refugees indicating that while the Compact addresses some important rights that affect urban refugees, such as the freedom of movement, it falls short when it fails to explicitly recognise urban refugees as a group. It thus neglects the opportunity to highlight the benefits of letting refugees integrate into local communities, rather than keeping them in camps. This means that urban refugees will continue to fight hostile policies that assume disadvantage to the host community, on their part. Would the African regional integration and free movement agenda provide some rationality to the fluidity of displacement and migration on the continent, while still allowing for protection for related vulnerabilities? Is not a question asked often enough. As said by Achieng Akena, IRRI’s Executive Director, “when we say ‘African solutions for African problems’ this should manifest to protect Africans; and the continent’s body of laws should be interpreted to safeguard and not exclude Africans in-need. This is the least we can expect from Pan-Africanism and the free movement regimes”.

Should refugees be passive recipients of aid or political actors and agents of change? This question remains contested. Refugees in settlements and urban communities are confronted with the daily challenges of meeting their socio-economic needs and those of their families. As a result of these more apparent humanitarian and livelihood-related concerns, the potential for refugees to have political agency which can shape solutions to their displacement, is largely overlooked by humanitarian and development stakeholders, and is, at times, directly prohibited, e.g. legislation in Uganda does not allow refugees to “engage in any political activities… whether at local or national level”. This is presumedly derived from the provisions of the African Refugee Convention that bars what is termed as “subversion”. IRRI drives conversations on civic engagement by refugees viz.: their political inclusion; formal and informal political activities and the ways in which they are able to participate in peace and democracy building; their access to citizenship; perspectives on electoral rights for refugees and refugee communities e.g. through out-of-country voting mechanisms; opportunities and limitations of informal mechanisms for political participation, such as the Refugee Welfare Committees (RWCs) for settlement-based refugees in the settlements, as well as refugee-led organising.