African Convention Expands the Definition of Refugees Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

African governments broadened the international refugee definition to include groups of people fleeing from generalized violence in all or part of their country of origin.

Summary of Event

The adoption of the 1969 Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of the Problem of Refugees in Africa was an important human rights event because it substantially broadened the legal refugee definition as it applied to millions of Africans. The narrower definition found in the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) required individual refugees to demonstrate a well-founded fear of specific kinds of persecution. The African definition anticipated that groups of people, as well as discrete individuals, might have genuine fears of persecution. It extended refugee status to those who fled more general contexts of domestic disruption and civil war. To appreciate the importance of this event, one must understand the historical context from which it emerged. Refugees;Africa Refugees;conventions Organization of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of the Problem of Refugees in Africa [kw]African Convention Expands the Definition of Refugees (Sept. 10, 1969) [kw]Convention Expands the Definition of Refugees, African (Sept. 10, 1969) [kw]Refugees, African Convention Expands the Definition of (Sept. 10, 1969) Refugees;Africa Refugees;conventions Organization of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of the Problem of Refugees in Africa [g]Africa;Sept. 10, 1969: African Convention Expands the Definition of Refugees[10440] [g]Ethiopia;Sept. 10, 1969: African Convention Expands the Definition of Refugees[10440] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 10, 1969: African Convention Expands the Definition of Refugees[10440] [c]Immigration, emigration, and relocation;Sept. 10, 1969: African Convention Expands the Definition of Refugees[10440] [c]Human rights;Sept. 10, 1969: African Convention Expands the Definition of Refugees[10440] Ahidjo, Ahmadou Nyerere, Julius

Long before the countries of Europe set foot in sub-Saharan Africa to carve its vast territory into exclusive colonial domains, Africans had known the yoke of indigenous tyranny and the relief of flight. The arrival of the Europeans did not change historical migration patterns: Africans continued to move across the artificial colonial boundaries following traditional nomadic patterns, searching for seasonal employment, or fleeing from oppressive circumstances, regardless of who exercised overlordship.

Thus, when one African nation after another was born in rapid succession in the 1960’s, it was no surprise that these new states almost immediately faced refugee problems. The boundaries bequeathed by the departing Europeans to the fledgling states of Africa often bore little resemblance to demographic realities: In some cases warring tribes were called upon to fashion national unity from hundreds of competing and often incompatible ethnic communities, while in other cases peoples were split in two, their loyalties divided between new, artificial, and often arbitrary sovereign entities. Tensions resulting from these challenges to the new African states often boiled over into conflict, as they did in Rwanda and Burundi in the late 1950’s, early 1960’s, and later. In other parts of Africa, such as Algeria and Southern Africa, struggles by indigenous peoples to secure their independence from colonial or white minority regimes also led to the displacement of people. Neither in the struggle to gain independence nor afterward did Africa avoid the copious flow of refugees.

Thus, when the Organization of African Unity Organization of African Unity was founded in 1963, it was seized almost immediately with the question of how to protect and assist refugees. In response to the Rwanda and Burundi crises, the OAU Council of Ministers established a refugee commission to study the matter and suggest ways in which the refugee problem could be solved. In 1966, the committee of legal experts of this commission met at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, headquarters to the OAU secretariat, to draft a refugee convention. From these discussions emerged the principles upon which the 1969 OAU convention on refugees would be based.

In the meantime, refugee problems were proliferating and intensifying across the continent. Three revolutions against Portuguese authority produced substantial refugee flows: Mozambicans fled into Tanzania, Angolans crossed over into Zambia, and Senegal received thousands from Guinea-Bissau. By 1966, nearly 100,000 Sudanese had fled into Uganda to escape civil war, while only a year later, Eritreans also began to flee into the Sudan from Ethiopia’s civil war.

It was with a sense of some urgency, then, that the OAU convened in 1967 a conference on the legal, economic, and social aspects of African refugee problems. This important conference—under the able influence of the Tanzanian government, whose president, Julius Nyerere, was a stalwart champion of refugee interests—further strengthened momentum toward adoption by the OAU of a refugee convention. Tanzania presented the findings of the conference to the OAU Council of Ministers meeting in 1968. The conference recommendation that the OAU should broaden the refugee definition beyond that contained in the 1951 U.N. Convention was approved by the ministers and was incorporated into the African convention on refugees.

At Addis Ababa, the OAU Assembly of Heads of State and Government, with Ahmadou Ahidjo of Cameroon presiding, adopted the OAU refugee convention on September 10, 1969. Five years of deliberations had finally borne fruit, but it took another five years before the convention finally entered into force, on June 20, 1974.

The OAU refugee convention reemphasized several basic principles contained in the 1951 U.N. convention on refugees. It called upon member states to grant asylum to refugees and to permit their temporary settlement. The granting of asylum to refugees was characterized as a strictly humanitarian act, not a hostile or unfriendly one toward the country of origin. Governments were called upon to refrain from rejecting refugees at the border, and from expelling or involuntarily returning them to their country of origin, while at the same time acting aggressively to assist those refugees who requested repatriation. Where neither repatriation nor settlement in the country of first asylum was feasible, the OAU convention called upon member states to facilitate refugees’ resettlement to a third country. Governments were required to refrain from discriminating against refugees and to issue travel documents so that refugees might be able to travel outside the territory of the country of asylum. All the foregoing principles were wholly consistent with obligations many African states already adhered to under the 1951 U.N. convention or 1967 protocol.

The most significant difference between the OAU and the U.N. conventions centers on the definition of the term “refugee.” The OAU convention incorporates virtually verbatim the 1951 U.N. convention language identifying refugees as persons who have a well-founded fear of persecution, but the OAU convention carries the definition a very important step further. Paragraph 2 of article 1 states that the term would also apply to people who, because of external aggression, occupation, foreign domination, or events seriously disturbing public order in either part or all of their country of origin or nationality, are compelled to leave to seek refuge in another place outside their country of origin or nationality.

This definition is significantly broader than the U.N. definition, which, narrowly construed, requires the individual to document a specific well-founded fear of becoming the target of governmentally sponsored religious, ethnic, racial, or political persecution. The OAU convention confers refugee status not only to such individuals but also to whole groups of people fleeing from colonial wars, foreign intervention, and civil disturbances in all or part of their home state. The vast majority of African refugees fall into this broader category. The OAU convention extends guarantees of protection and assistance to them.

This new and more generous standard established a legal basis by which African governments could guarantee the safety and welfare of dispossessed and distraught populations fleeing from a widening circle of conflicts in Africa. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), acting under U.N. General Assembly auspices and with the support of the international donor community, readily accepted the broader OAU definition as being applicable to refugee situations in Africa. The UNHCR has been able to extend its protective functions and humanitarian endeavors to any and all persons African governments have granted asylum under the generous OAU standards.

Whether one was a displaced Tigrean seeking to avoid a cross fire between Eritrean rebels and the Marxist Ethiopian government, or an Idi Amin supporter targeted for execution by the troops of Milton Obote in Uganda, or a member of the formerly banned African National Congress in South Africa, or a Mozambican fleeing from famine caused by rebel acts of sabotage against agricultural communities, one was, in Africa, a refugee deserving of protection and assistance not only from the host government but also from the UNHCR and the international community at large. Starving and destitute masses seeking safety and relief from civil wars and disruption together with politically persecuted individuals alike were embraced by the new OAU standard.


At the time of the adoption and entry into force of the OAU convention, fewer than one million refugees resided in various African countries. Within a decade, that number tripled, and within two decades the total number of African refugees exceeded five million. The expanded OAU refugee definition fortunately encompassed the throngs of destitute, often sickly and starving, persons who sought refuge from the violence and turmoil of their home states.

Instabilities in the Horn of Africa intensified throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, sending millions of persons into exile, as Ethiopians, Somalis, and Sudanese fled persecution and civil war. Similar conflicts displaced nearly one million people from Mozambique and several hundred thousand from Uganda and Angola. A three-way battle for sovereignty in Liberia saw hundreds of thousands seek shelter in neighboring states during 1990. As the 1990’s progressed, other conflicts in Rwanda, the Congo, Sudan, and West Africa would continue to produce large numbers of refugees. Countless smaller refugee movements have bedeviled as many as half of the OAU’s member states. In 2004, after the OAU had earlier reformed and renamed itself the African Union, Africa still had more then three million refugees, even though many earlier situations had been resolved and hundreds of thousands had benefited from repatriation to their homelands.

The existence of a flexible legal instrument to deal with these massive and often overpowering migrations of desperately needy people has been a genuinely indispensable humanitarian tool. By reinforcing and expanding the U.N. definition, African governments have committed themselves to helping refugees survive and reestablish their lives.

The OAU convention has not only benefited countless refugees in Africa proper but has also influenced legal developments in other parts of the developing world as well. The Cartagena Declaration, which more liberally defines refugees in the Latin American context, owes a substantial intellectual debt to the OAU convention. Little did African heads of state realize that they would contribute so greatly to the advance of humanitarian policy and refugee protection when they approved the OAU convention in 1969. Refugees;Africa Refugees;conventions Organization of African Unity Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of the Problem of Refugees in Africa

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brooks, Hugh C., and Yassin el-Ayouty, eds. Refugees South of the Sahara. Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities Press, 1970. This dated collection of essays by several distinguished students of Africa, including academics and policy makers, provides insight into the refugee situation as it stood when the African refugee convention was adopted. Some footnotes, several valuable documentary and statistical appendixes, index. No bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fullerton, Maryellen. “The International and National Protection of Refugees.” In Guide to International Human Rights Practice, edited by Hurst Hannum. 4th ed. Ardsley, N.Y.: Transnational, 2004. Examines the international community’s role in protecting political and other refugees. Recommended for study of the legal implications of refugee status and human rights.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gorman, Robert F. Coping with Africa’s Refugee Burden: A Time for Solutions. Boston: Kluwer, 1987. This history of the Second International Conference on Assistance to Refugees in Africa (ICARA II) documents how governments, international agencies, and private organizations have responded in meeting not only Africa’s refugee assistance needs but also the needs of host countries and populations whose economic and social welfare has been adversely affected by the presence of refugees. Includes an index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greenfield, Richard. “The OAU and Africa’s Refugees.” In The OAU After Twenty Years, edited by Yassin El-Ayouty. New York: Praeger, 1984. This extensively documented chapter describes the African refugee situation as it has evolved by region since the early days of the Organization of African Unity. A brief but useful summary of events leading up to the OAU conference relating to the status of refugees is included. Other articles in this volume are also relevant to the refugee question. The volume contains an index but no bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hamrell, Sven, ed. Refugee Problems in Africa. Uppsala, Sweden: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1967. This monograph explores various aspects of the refugee problem in Africa. Although dated, it provides insight into the pre-OAU convention situation in regard to refugees, including the political causes and consequences of refugee flows and the organizational responses meant to address them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kibreab, Gaim. African Refugees: Reflections on the African Refugee Problem. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1985. This trim volume, representing the sometimes unconvincing earlier views of a well-known African scholar, provides an iconoclastic interpretation of the role of tribalism and the notion of African hospitality toward refugees. Later chapters dealing with refugee flows as they relate to development are illuminating. Contains footnotes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"


    The State of the World’s Refugees, 2006: Human Displacement in the New Millennium. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. A 237-page report by the UNHCR. Focuses on the ongoing task of the agency for the new century and beyond.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Timberlake, Lloyd. Africa in Crisis: The Causes, the Cures of Environmental Bankruptcy. Washington, D.C.: International Institute for Environment and Development, 1985. A readable analysis of the environmental underpinnings of contemporary African drought, famine, and refugee flows. The later chapters of this book show how the refugee problem and the development needs of the continent are directly tied to environmental degradation. Weak bibliography. No index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zolberg, Aristide R., Astri Suhrke, and Sergio Aguayo. Escape from Violence: Conflict and the Refugee Crisis in the Developing World. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. This exhaustively documented book contains three chapters that directly focus on refugee problems in Africa as a whole and on various regional refugee-producing conflicts in the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa. Ethnic disputes, the weak development of the nation-state, ideological disputes, and external intervention are identified as primary causes of refugee flows in different areas. Extensive footnotes and an index. No bibliography.

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Categories: History