Human Rights and Refugees in Africa

Africa, with its dictators, one-party states, revolutions and frequent coups lends itself to the pursuit of human rights and refugee research. Advocacy groups both outside of and within Africa have been sprouting up recently in great numbers. In fact it is the very growth of democracy that has brought them out. There are more than ample materials for their study. This guide seeks to demonstrate methods of pursuing research both through individual books and journals and through research methods designed to facilitate your study.

Human Rights

The problem of human rights may seem to be straightforward but it is not. There is the question of cultural integrity. Is polygamy, for example, a women’s rights issue? Even more controversial is the problem of female ‘circumcision’. This involves the cutting of the clitoris of young girls and even babies which is considered beneficial by the cultures which practice it. An even more radical procedure is infibulation or ‘pharaonic’ circumcision by which the labia are sewn shut through the use of thorns or catgut. In both cases the results are serious physical harm or even death. This clearly is an agenda for human rights action, but it is extremely difficult to change age-old traditions and African women intellectuals often are sensitive to the haranguing of women’s groups from the West. For a bibliography on this subject turn to David M. Westley’s “Female Circumcision and Infibulation in Africa” in Electronic Journal of Africana Bibliography. For a shorter print bibliography check the one at the end of Bettina Shell-Duncan and Ylva Hernlund’s Female Circumcision in Africa: Culture, Controversy and Change (Boulder CO: Lynn Rienner, 2000). GN484 F443 2000 This is also one of the best books on the subject.

For a general search on human rights in Africa simply do a subject search of the library catalog for “human rights africa”.


Bibliographies on African human rights are plentiful. You can access them by doing a subject search for “human rights africa bibliography”.

Electronic Journal of Africana Bibliography

Another worthy bibliography which is also more up-to-date is Mohammed Komeja’s “The African System of Human and Peoples’ Rights: An Annotated Bibliography” East African Journal of Peace and Human Rights 3, 2 (1997); 262-305. (Law Annex K3236.2 E27)

Another important publication is The African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. New York: United Nations, 1990. (Afr. Doc. J599 A35 A37 1990). Work on this charter began in 1961 and it was hammered out between then and 1989. It is signed by most, but not all, of the members of the Organization of African Unity.


Some useful journals on Human Rights are:

  • Freedom Review continues Freedom at Issue. 1970-. Quarterly.(Mugar D839 F732) A conservative journal with some African concerns.
  • A Global Agenda.. 1991-. Annual. (Mugar JX1977.A1 U5244a) Contains a section on Africa in each issue.
  • Human Rights Tribune. 1992-. Quarterly. (Mugar ) Contains some articles on African cases.
  • Human Rights Internet Reporter. 1981-. Quarterly. (Mugar ) A directory of human rights organizations and resources. Especially recommended is volume 15 which has a separate listing for African countries.
  • Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. 1979-. Annual. (Law Annex ) Published by the Department of State. Covers African countries in detail.
  • Refugee reports.


Diana Fox and Naima Hasci, eds. The Challenge of Women’s Activism and Human Rights in Africa. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1999. (HQ1236.5.A35 C53 1999) Women’s rights are an important issue in the study of human rights. This is a particularly good book on the subject which takes on the question of relativism versus universalism. It also has chapters specifically concerning Somalia, Kenya, Morocco, Eritrea, South Africa and Uganda.

Human rights are taken on in large part by non-governmental organizations (NGOs). They began mostly outside the continent but more frequently nowadays they are grassroots organizations that are the product of individual African initiative. There are now literally thousands of them. The definition of them is that they are a non-profit, private sector organization. A good book on the topic is Claude E. Welch, Jr. Protecting Human Rights in Africa: Roles and Strategies of Non-Governmental Organizations. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. (Mugar JC599.A36 W45 1995)


Censorship is another area of human rights. See the following:

  • Adewale-Maja Pearce. Who’s Afraid of Wole Soyinka? Essays on Censorship. Oxford: Heinemann, 1991. (Law Annex JC599.N54 M35 1991).
  • Who Rules the Airwaves? Broadcasting in Africa. London: Article 19: Index on Censorship, 1995. (Storage HE8689.9 A357 A78 1995).
  • A good journal to search is Index on Censorship. (African Studies Library K9 N3)

Human rights resources on the Web

It is suggested that when using search engines, enter “human rights” and “Africa” with the quotation marks as shown. This will give you the best choice of material. Some of the better sites are listed below:

Links: Africa and the Middle East

  • links to African and Middle Eastern NGOs, to online bibliographies and other educational tools.
  • Africa Action: In partnership with activists and civil society organizations throughout the United States and in Africa, Africa Action is working to change U.S. foreign policy and the policies of international institutions in order to support African struggles for peace and development.


Between 1969 and 1994 Africa’s refugee population grew from 700,000 to more than 7 million. During the same time the number of internally displaced went from ten million to fifteen million. Africa has more refugees than any other country. This section aims to give you access to the best information on the literature of this astonishing situation. You will notice that much of the best information is found in works that include world-wide treatments.

To begin your search, try: refugees Africa

Or narrow it to find information on individual countries, e.g. : refugees Guinea

You will find that the literature discusses five kinds of activity:

  • flight from a particular country
  • flight to another country
  • internal displacement
  • return of populations
  • refoulement or forcible return of refugees

Two summaries are essential:

  • United Nations High Commission for Refugees. (UNHCR). The State of the World’s Refugees. Fifty Years of Humanitarian Action. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. Both retrospective and current this is an essential text for the study of African refugees. (Online)
  • World Refugee Survey 2001. In African Studies reference section. One of the best sources for current information on African refugees. (Mugar HV640 .W63)

Books on Refugees

Roberta Cohen and Francis M. Deng. The Forsaken People: Case Studies of the Internally Displaced. Washington, DC: Brookings Institute, 1998. Includes Burundi, Rwanda, Liberia and the Sudan (Mugar HV640 .F63 1998)

Tim Allen and Hubert Morsink. When Refugees Go Home. African Experiences. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1994. (Mugar HV640.4 A35 W48 1994)

Meridith Turshen and Clotilde Twagiramariya. What Women Do in Wartime: Gender and Conflict in Africa. London; New York: Zed Books, 1998. (Mugar HV6250.4 W65 W467 1998)

Richard Black. Refugees, Environment and Development. Harlow, Essex: Addison Wesley Longman. 1998. (Mugar HV640 B53 1998)

Marc Sommers. The Children’s War. Towards Peace in Sierra Leone. A Field Report Assessing the Protection of Sierra Leonean Children and Adolescents. Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children, 1997. (Mugar DT516.826 S66 1997)

Seeking Protection. Addressing Sexual and Domestic Violence in Uganda’s Refugee Camps. New York: Human Rights Watch, 2000. (Mugar HV640.5 B95 M33 2000)

Tony Waters. Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan: The Limitations to Humanitarian Relief Operation. Boulder CO: Westview Press, 2001. (Mugar HV640 W335 2001)


  • Refugee Reports (Afr.St. HV640 R45) Earlier editions in stacks.
  • Refugee Survey Quarterly (Afr.St., print. Current issues in African Studies Library, older issues in the Mugar Stacks.  Also available )

Internet Resources

Some examples: