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Security Implications of Hosting Refugees: The Case of South Sudanese Refugees in Gambella, Southwestern Ethiopia


A group of refugees huddle around the volunteer sanitation workers. Photo courtesy of UNICEF Ethiopia via Flickr Commons

Ethiopia appears in alignment with Europe's policy of keeping refugees in Africa by creating job opportunities and promoting integration. Ethiopia pledged at the UN's Leaders' Summit on 20 September 2016 to "make 10,000 hectares of irrigable land available, to enable 20,000 refugees and host community households (100,000 people) to grow crops" and to "allow local integration for refugees who have lived in Ethiopia for over 20 years."[i] This pledge was followed by news of the United Kingdom, the European Union, and the World Bank partnering in the creation of 100,000 jobs in Ethiopia.[ii] This post aims to highlight the potential security and political implications of Ethiopia's pledge to host refugees, focusing particularly on the Gambella Region of Ethiopia, which is currently home to about 840,000 refugees.

Putting the Refugee Situation in Ethiopia in Perspective

The South Sudan conflict brought major changes in refugee dynamics in Africa. Ethiopia became the largest refugee hosting country on the continent for a brief period as of July 2014 due to the onset of the civil war in the world's youngest nation, South Sudan. The resulting influx of refugees increased the South Sudanese refugee population by more than 5 times. Refugees account for less than one percent of Ethiopia's projected population of 95 million in 2017. Yet, if considered as an identity or an ethnic group, refugees rank as the 14th most populous group in Ethiopia according to the 2007 Population and Housing Census. Furthermore, in Gambella particularly, refugees have more than doubled the region's population, which was projected to be 396,000 in 2017 by Ethiopia's Central Statistical Agency. This population increase has major implications for the delicate and already complex ethnic politics in Gambella. Almost all of the refugees in the region's seven refugee camps are South Sudanese Nuer, who can seamlessly and continuously integrate with the Ethiopian Nuer, raising tensions with the Anuak.

Refugees and Identity Politics in Gambella  

Gambella has experienced severe ethnic conflicts since the 1990s between the Anuak and Nuer groups, primarily over land. Animated by their special attachment to their "village state," the Anuak resisted the Nuer and waged irredentist wars. In reaction, the Nuer continued their encroachment into Anuak territories. This pattern continued up until the start of Ethiopia's federalization process.[iii]

When Gambella became a separate regional state in 1991, the Anuak rose to prominent positions through claims of stronger Ethiopian credentials and contributions to the regime change.[iv] However, the 1994 Population and Housing Census solidified that the Nuer were more populous than the Anuak in Gambella, ushering in an era of stronger Nuer engagement in political leadership of the region, and consequently a new Nuer leadership.[v] The contestation for power spurred violent conflicts, mainly between the Anuak and Nuer and between the Anuak and Highlanders, escalating into the December 2003 crisis,[vi] which claimed the lives of more than 400 Anuak.[vii]

Unlike the Anuak, Nuer identity construction is malleable and has been strategically used by the latter. To be an Anuak, one is required to be born from Anuak father and mother. Moreover, Anuak are considered to be guests if they reside anywhere other than their natal village. On the other hand, identity is not territorialized for the Nuer. Some Nuer men specifically targeted Anuak women to marry, as bride prices are lower, and consequently all children from such unions are considered Nuer by the Anuak.[viii] Moreover, Nuer refugees from South Sudan managed to easily become Ethiopians in the 1990s, only to later re-identify as South Sudanese when circumstances improved.[ix] Due to the recent refugee inflow from South Sudan, the same process might be re-deployed again. The hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese Nuer refugees in Gambella could seek to become Ethiopian citizens in the coming years, through the same social and political processes, further contributing to the ongoing tension with the Anuak.

Security Implications of Hosting Refugees

Often, the security implications of the refugee situation are presented as a byproduct of the "cultural and political distance" the refugee community has with the host. This is the case in Europe and the United States, where fear of migrants is feeding the rise of authoritarian populism. However, in many African countries, refugees come from across the border and are often from the same ethnic group that was divided by colonial boundaries. This implies that refugees can more easily blend into their host community and, in the process, trigger a set of identity and resource politics issues that can escalate into violent conflict in the borderlands of the host community. Such occurrences are not rare and not limited to the Horn of Africa, and they can increase the likelihood of ethnic conflict. According to Salehyan and Gleditsch, there is a tangible risk of conflict in host and origin countries due to the spread of arms from combatants. In some cases, "the presence of refugees from neighboring countries leads to an increased probability of a state experiencing civil [war] onset."[x] Refugees become part of the ethnic calculations of the receiving country or area, and can side with their co-ethnics in political contestations or open conflict, as evidenced in the cases of the Somali refugees in Ethiopia, Hutu refugees in eastern DRC, and Kosovar Albanian migrants in Macedonia.[xi]

Ethiopia's Perspective on Hosting Refugees

Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), chose to celebrate this year's World Refugee Day in Gambella, where he particularly acknowledged the increasing role that the region has played in hosting South Sudanese refugees during what he called "the fastest, most dramatic refugee crisis at this moment." Echoing these sentiments, Ethiopia's Foreign Minister, Dr. Workneh Gebeyehu, stressed that Ethiopia will keep its borders open for refugees, but insisted on developed countries sharing this burden, help address root causes of conflict in South Sudan, and, most importantly, acknowledge the plight of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The President of Gambella Regional State, Mr. Gatluak Tut Khot, addressed the long-term negative regional security impacts of hosting refugees in his region stressing the environmental, social, and economic impacts of refugees.[xii]

Judging from the political developments of recent decades and the high likelihood of Nuer refugees "being integrated into the local community" as part of implementing the pledge, it is conceivable that the current refugee situation could further disrupt the already shaky demographic balance in the region. Coupled with the increasing alienation of land for commercial agriculture over the past decade, not only does the possibility of allocating irrigable land to refugees stiffen resource competition, but it also increases the likelihood of ethnic conflict. If the federal government does not take preventive precautionary measures, there well may be a déjà vu of the tense political environment and violent conflicts of the late 1990s and early 2000s.


There is no doubt that countries like Ethiopia should keep their borders open, not only letting people in during their utmost time of need, but also protecting and securing them. Simultaneously, there is no doubt that there is need to consider the resource, social, and political consequences of hosting refugees. Refugee management, including the location of camps, should be carefully thought out in order to reduce the negative impacts of hosting refugees. While we need not promote the public and politicians' sentiments bent against refugees present in U.S., Europe, and China, we also cannot afford to be blind to the potential impacts of hosting refugees.

Fana Gebresenbet is an Assistant Professor at the Institute for Peace and Security Studies of Addis Ababa University and a Research Fellow at the Centre of Africa Studies of University of the Free State, South Africa. He was a Southern Voices Scholar Network for Peacebuilding in 2014.

[i] (accessed on 9 August 2017).

[ii] (accessed on 9 August 2017).

[iii] Dereje Feyissa. 2011. Playing Different Games: The Paradox of Anywaa and Nuer Identification Strategies in the Gambella Region, Ethiopia. New York: Berghan Books.

[iv] The Anuak formed a rebel group, the Gambella Peoples Liberation Front, in the late 1980s, which established contact with the current ruling party came to hold state power 1991. On the other hand, the Nuer are viewed as 'supporters'/'sympathizers' of the military government as they did not openly resist it (see Dereje, 2011 for details).

[v] Dereje Feyissa. 2006. The Experience of Gambella Regional State. In: Turton, David. (ed.), Ethnic Federalism: The Ethiopian Experience in a Comparative Perspective (pp. 208-230). Oxford: James Currey.

[vi] Ibid.; Highlander is a generic term to refer to non-indigenous Ethiopians coming from the central and northern highlands of Ethiopia.

[vii] (accessed on 9 August 2017).

[viii] Dereje F. 2011

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Salehyan, I and Gleditsche, K.S. 2006. Refugee Flows and the Spread of Civil War. International Organization, 60: 335-366.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] A recent news article based on a leaked report ( accessed on 2 September 2017) argues that the president wants the refugees to return to South Sudan, claiming that the government now has full control.

About the Author

Fana Gebresenbet

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and U.S.-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial U.S.-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in U.S.-Africa relations.    Read more