Care and care with the new refuge law

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Every stick has two ends, so they say. Ethiopia has recently amended its refugee law so as to provide more rights for hundreds of thousands refugees it has sheltered. The move may encourage additional refugees to cross its border and enjoy the newly-given rights, that are difficult to get in elsewhere.

That is my guess, as an ordinary citizen. I do not know exactly what would happen in the future. What I know certainly at this moment is that Ethiopia’s move has been applauded by international agencies like the UNHCR, which has referred the new bill as “one of the most progressive refugee policies in Africa,” while some citizens are expressing their concerns. Well, having a progressive law in addressing one of the major international problems might be good for Ethiopia’s image. The move might also be rewarding in terms of financial support.

We know that such things are not easy to find these days. But, losing the support of your own citizens might be another danger that we need to thwart. The Ethiopian government says that the amendment was necessary to facilitate a legal framework in which refugees and citizens could engage in development in keeping with the current international, regional and local situations. Ordinary citizens like me have a mixed feeling while some critically opposed the new bill from the outset claiming that it did not take their exceptional situation into account.

For example, voices coming out the Anuak people in Gambella region are bitterly expressed. A peace and human rights researcher, Ajit Miru (PhD), native to Gambella, recently told local media that the law even threatens the livelihood of the Anuak people “who are much less in number than the refugees in Gambella”, in Western Ethiopia, which is currently hosting thousands of refugees from South Sudan. Though he tried to commend on the good intention of the government in helping refugees, Miru is critical of the endorsement of the new law in view of the objective reality of his region.

“The law was approved by the Parliament without the consent of a single representative of Gambella,” he said, calling for its revision. He also told ESAT TV that the Anuak community has been petitioning to the government protesting the law. While some of the local reactions are like this one, Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees said, “The passage of this historic law represents a significant milestone in Ethiopia’s long history of welcoming and hosting refugees from across the region for decades. By allowing refugees the opportunity to be better integrated into society, Ethiopia is not only upholding its international refugee law obligations, but is serving as a model for other refugee hosting nations around the world.”

According to UNHCR, Ethiopia’s revision of its refugee law comes just weeks after the UN General Assembly agreed to the Global Compact on Refugees on 17 December 2018. UNHCR also says that it was involved in the drafting process of the refugee law revision. The bill replaces the 2004 Refugee Proclamation which also upheld the key principles of the 1951 Refugee Convention as well as the 1969 OAU Convention, which restricted some refugee rights, like freedom of movement and access to education, and made no mention of integration.

According to some sources, the bill “that aims to enhance the country’s visibility and acceptance internationally is set in line with Ethiopia’s commitment toward the United Nations Global Compact on Refugees, adopted by world leaders in December to increase refugees’ self-reliance and ease the pressure on host nations.” Some reports indicate that the new legislation was part of the country’s “Jobs Compact” — a $500 million program which aims to create 100,000 jobs — 30 percent of which will be allocated to refugees. “This helps refugees and supports Ethiopia’s industrialization.”

The crux of the matter is that Ethiopia’s new refugee law will grant to almost one million refugees, more rights such as work permits and access to education. Based on the new law, the refugees who had been confined to a number of camps across the country will go out to look for jobs, start their own business and learn in schools alongside Ethiopian citizens. Among other things, the bill provides structure that enables legal refugees to engage in inclusive development programs in the localities they reside, based on the country’s land lease and finance system.

Refugees can formally register births, marriages and deaths, and will have access financial services such as bank accounts. No wonder, even before the new bill, frankly speaking, a lot of refugees were out of camps in Ethiopia. For examples, a recent report by Al-Jazeera shows how young Syrians were running a restaurant jointly owned by Ethiopians and Syrians in Addis Ababa’s Bole Michael district.

The report indicated that Addis Ababa was witnessing a mushrooming of Syrian restaurants and Syrian carpets gaining steady popularity among Ethiopian shoppers. A 20-year old Syrian refugee, travelled to Ethiopia as a teenager with his family five years ago, fleeing the Syrian civil war told Al-Jazeera, “I came to Ethiopia through Sudan. Ever since arriving in Ethiopia I have found it to be a stable country, with a relatively easy process to get foreign residence ID.

Ethiopian people have been generous to me.” The guy was one of hundreds of Syrians who have set up home in Ethiopia, which they knew first “through the Holy Quran, which mentions ancient Ethiopia as a place of refuge for the first Muslims.” According to an official figure, out of more than 500 Syrian refugees, 157 had registered as refugees and 50 had received a temporary residency permit, while the rest were on transit and tourist visas. The Ethiopian government has allowed Syrians to move around the country, unlike refugees of other nationalities, and helped them receive assistance from UN agencies. One Syrian refugee testified to AlJazeera, “God is great, Ethiopians are treating me well.

They are very nice but my situation is difficult. I want to find work in Ethiopia until Syria returns to peace and I can return.” The good intention of the new bill is that it focuses on ensuring refugees have the opportunity to be self-reliant and can contribute to local economies in a way that also benefits their hosts.

Aid workers say that is the right thing to do. The bill might serve as an example in a world “As some Western countries have adopted xenophobic policies while turning away refugees, we are pleased that Ethiopia has passed this revised refugee law,” said Stine Paus, Country Director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Ethiopia. Generally, sharing what Ethiopians have might not be difficult, especially for Ethiopians who are admired for their unmatched hospitality for foreigners throughout their history. That is the reality that made the country at present home to Africa’s second largest refugee population after Uganda, with more than 900,000 people who have fled conflict, drought and persecution in neighboring countries. But that is not all. The statistics show that the number of countries represented by the refugees is some 20.

Among them are included Syrian refugees. It is true that access to education and employment doesn’t just benefit refugees, it also contributes to the economy and benefits local communities. Nevertheless, care must be there in protecting citizens from terrorism as well as other detrimental effects that might be entailed. Care is needed for the refugees. More care is also needed for citizens.

Herald February 6/2019

BY FERHAN ZUL-KIFLE