On a four-day visit to the country, UNHCR Commissioner Filippo Grandi has lauded Ethiopia’s kindness in hosting the refugees, as well as its candidness in adopting new and inventive methods of improving the lives of more than 900,000 emigrants and the communities hosting them.
According to the UNHCR, Ethiopia hosts more than 900,000 refugees, mainly from Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, South Sudan as well as a small number from Syria and Yemen.
Mr. Grandi spent two days in Melkadida, an area bordering Somalia that hosts more than 200,000 refugees. He witnessed first-hand how a US$100 million investment by the IKEA foundation over a period of seven years has changed the fortunes of the semi-arid area into a prospering community.
He inspected various projects financed by the foundation, including a 1,000 hectares irrigation scheme which was previously barren land. The refugees have transformed the area where they can now grow tomatoes, watermelon, and corn three times a year.
He also got to see markets sustained by microfinance and other economic empowerment programs, where the locals and refugees purchase and sell their produce. The program has been successful such that the refugees can export their harvest to other regions in Ethiopia. The refugees are also saving some of their income to help improve the impressive markets themselves.
A unique approach to self-reliance and harmony:
“What has developed here is a unique approach to self-reliance of refugees where the government of Ethiopia has been extremely open to new approaches,” he said. “The host communities and refugees have also been remarkably open to working collaboratively in harmony. This is something we don’t ordinarily see,” he added.
Mr. Grandi and IKEA Foundation CEO Per Heggenes attended a meeting with the community leaders, where they heard how the investment has impacted the whole community. During the meeting, it was announced that IKEA was extending their support in the project for another three years to help the community sustain itself.
Heggenes noted the area was in desperate need of intervention when they began the project, but hailed the progress achieved as a “dream come true.” He said the goal is to help foster harmony between the locals and refugees, as it’s crucial for the growth of the country’s economy.
“What always happens when large numbers of refugees descend on a small community is it creates conflicts, because everyone wants to have the firewood, everyone wants to have the grazing land for their goats,” said Per Heggenes.
“We approached this in a way to say we’re going to help the refugees and the host community come together, farm the land together, share the crops and live as brothers and sisters,” he added.
In Melkadida Camp, Mr. Grandi visited a secondary school that’s also funded by IKEA Foundation, where host community students and the refugees have access to well-equipped classes, qualified teachers and a conducive environment that supports learning.
Those who complete their high school studies have an opportunity to attend a teacher’s college in the same area, thanks to IKEA Foundation support. The goal of this particular project is to give the youth an opportunity to become professionally qualified educators who can help shape the next generation of students in the area.
In attendance of the 32nd AU Summit:
While in the country, the High Commissioner was among the attendees of the AU summit in the capital where he participated in high-level talks on how to best address the root causes of Africa’s displacement. The discussion was co-organized by the UNHCR.
During the deliberations, it was noted that eliminating the complex and numerous reasons for the displacement of people –including terror activities, armed conflict, the absence of rule of law, lack of good governance and respect for human rights, corruption, and economic inequality among others- was the best way to achieve the desired solutions.
Mr. Grandi remarked on the huge numbers of refugees living in different countries in the continent due to unsolved conflict, but also the generosity of the host countries. The international community should recognize this and support Ethiopia as it continues to assist refugees.
The Growing Number of Refugees Pose a Challenge:
Ethiopia’s open door policy means that the number of refugees in the country will continue to grow. In this regard, the country is experiencing gaps in meeting their needs and deserve significant support to assist and protect the refugees in a more efficient way.
The Abiy led government has vowed to further improve the levels of support and protection enjoyed by asylum seekers and refugees and urges the international community to step up its support before the country is overwhelmed.
The Al-Shabab has been weakened by the AMISOM forces in Somali hence the improvements as far as Somali refugees are concerned. But the problem with Eritrea is persistent despite the re-establishment of a working relationship with Ethiopia. This is partly due to the gross human rights abuses, dictatorship and compulsory military service which is yet to be revoked.
Throughout his visit, the High Commissioner stressed the importance of the Global Compact on Refugees, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December last year that advocates for the inclusion of refugees in their host communities and more global support for nations like Ethiopia that welcomes them.
“This is the first year we’re going to implement the Global Compact on Refugees, but I tell people we’re already implementing it here in Melkadida, with multiple partners and development partners from programs in irrigation, vocation and educational training.” He said.
While in In Addis Ababa, Mr.Grandi met president Sahle-Work Zewde and Ato Kebede- the Director General of the state’s refugee agency ARRA. He praised the country’s new refugee law as one for the future because it represents the principles guiding the Global Compact on Refugees.
While addressing the press shortly after meeting with the President, Grandi said “the proclamation is one of the best refugee laws, not only in Africa but in the world,”and he further vowed to mobilize resources for development for the refugees and their host.