Young girls in a refugee camp in the Ethiopian border town of Dollo Ado. They are some of the nine million refugees in east Africa who have been forgotten by much of the world. Photo by Michael Swan

World turning blind eye to East Africa's refugee crisis costing thousands of lives

  • December 10, 2016

As the world focuses most of its attention on Syria, East Africa and its nine million refugees — 26 per cent of the world’s refugee population — is facing another wave of failed states, civil wars and ethnic cleansing.

Jesuit Fr. Endashaw Debrework, director of Jesuit Refugee Service operations in East Africa, has taken on the task of speaking up for these silenced, forgotten refugees.

“To be a voice for the voiceless. I begin from there,” Debrework told The Catholic Register during a brief visit to Toronto. “There are forgotten crises in the world today, not only in eastern Africa but also in Latin America, Asia.”

That’s not to suggest that the Syrian crisis isn’t real or is unworthy of the world’s attention. The JRS delivers education, health services, counselling and other care to displaced Syrians inside Syria as well as programming in refugee communities and camps in Lebanon and Jordan.

“However, I also insist there are other crises which equally need attention,” Debrework said.

The Ethiopian Jesuit is unsure that the refugee system, already working at over capacity, can take any more. He is calling on the international community to do more, particularly in situations where the national government has failed.

“These are situations that need maximum attention to bring a lasting solution,” he said.

While irresponsible and even criminal governments in South Sudan and Eritrea complain about outside interference in their internal affairs, the rest of the world is content to look the other way.

“I would like to mention a word that Pope Francis uses,” Debrework said. “We in the international community seem to use the ‘principle of indifference.’ That is a sin, morally speaking.

“We are seeing people die — millions and thousands of people dying in South Sudan, Eritrea and Syria. What is the role of the international community? What have they done? What have you done so far to stop this death, these crimes? We have lost so much.”

He believes the world has been too timid and too slow to invoke a United Nations doctrine called “Responsibility to Protect.”  First developed by Canadian diplomats after the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and the Srebrenica massacres of 1995, the doctrine was endorsed by every member state in 2005. It mandates the world community and especially the United Nations must intervene — militarily if necessary — whenever a government either fails to protect its own citizens or becomes a danger to them.

“We have the moral responsibility to care for the other person,” said Debrework. “This is where the challenge has been. The international community has not been aggressively involved in interfering in some dictatorial regimes. It is high time for the international community — it should and must interfere to save the lives of millions of people in Eastern Africa and beyond.”

While the JRS worries about the long-term refugees in its care, the Catholic NGO is also seeing thousands upon thousands of new refugees being created by events unfolding in Africa:

– A United Nations team of investigators reported Dec. 1 that South Sudan risks a Rwanda-like disaster, with widespread ethnic cleansing already underway. Both government and rebel forces are employing rape, starvation and burning villages as the civil war gears up for the dry season. On Nov. 21 Japanese troops with a mandate from the UN landed in Juba, South Sudan’s capital. By mid-December the Japanese should have 350 peacekeepers stationed in the country.

– Relatively stable Ethiopia, the largest host to refugees in Africa, has been in a state of emergency since October and the government claims to have arrested more than 11,000 people since the Oromo region exploded in protest against the government in Addis Ababa.

– Kenya’s populist president Uhuru Kenyata has vowed to shut the country’s refugee camps, home to 300,000 Somalis, on the grounds they are aiding and hiding Somali Al-Shabaab militants who have staged attacks at a Nairobi shopping mall and a university five-hours drive east of Nairobi.

Even without these new crises, Debrework fears the relief system is already near its breaking point. At a recent visit to a JRS-run school in South Sudan, he witnessed a student fainting.

“I asked the teacher what happened. He said, this child has not eaten. I felt enormously powerless, helpless,” Debrework said.

Lecturing and preaching while on tour in Canada and the United States, Debrework has highlighted the work the Jesuits do in the Ethiopian border town of Dollo Ado. The tiny desert community within sight of the Ethiopian-Somali border is host to five government-controlled refugee camps with a total population in excess of 250,000.

Currently active in two of the camps, the JRS is the one agency that runs a full range of services aimed at every part of the refugee population.

“Our services there are unique and special,” Debrework said. “We deal with children. We deal with women. We deal with gangs. We deal with people with special needs. We deal with elderly people. So it is an inclusive service that we give to refugees.”

Increasingly, the JRS is dealing with young people who have little memory of life outside the camps — children and teenagers who grew up in refugee camps over the last seven years. For this group, the JRS runs sports and recreation programs that provide an outlet for teenage energy and schools that teach everything from English to practical trades.

“These schools are really a beacon of hope for whoever is attending these classes. They are thinking, ‘I am building my future.’ Because they can’t see at the moment their future. The only way we can help them to see their future is through these various education facilities we are trying to provide,” said Debrework.

UNHCR surveys of the refugee population globally have found that the average refugee today spends a total of 17 years displaced from their homes before they can either return or finally settle in a new home. It often takes years before a displaced person is registered as a refugee, let alone eligible for resettlement.

Long-term refugees, whether in camps or in cities such as Addis Ababa and Nairobi, face only the most dim and distant prospects of resettlement in Canada. Canada’s average processing time for a refugee with private sponsors waiting for them (usually a Church group, but also other organizations) is 73 months (just over six years).

Parishes and other Catholic groups in Canada concerned about the fate of refugees have to go beyond resettlement efforts.

“A parish can raise funds to bring a family here and it takes five years. It takes six years. Meanwhile, these people need support,” Debrework said.

“Education support, medical support, food, housing and many, many other supports. So, how do we balance? Should we just focus on bringing them in, no matter what they are suffering at the moment?”

Increasingly, the JRS finds itself having to feed people inside the Dollo Ado camps.

“The WFP (World Food Program of the United Nations) does not have enough funds to feed the children,” said Debrework. “One dollar makes a lot of difference. When we feed a child with a dollar we are saving a life. $1,000 feeds 1,000 children.

“These are situations that need maximum attention to bring a lasting solution,” he said.

(More information about the JRS is at

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