Southern Africa

Man siting on a heal gazing at the river
A refugee gazes across the Ubangi River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo towards his home country, the Central African Republic, after fleeing post-election violence. More than 70,000 refugees from the CAR have been registered in the DRC since violence broke out after last December’s elections.
© UNHCR/Adrienne Surprenant
16 June 2022
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This information about the region in 2021 is an extended version of the regional chapter in the Global Report 2021, which you can download here. The Global Report also contains information on funding and thematic chapters on UNHCR's work to achieve its Global Strategic Priorities and other initiatives.


Executive summary

The number of forcibly displaced and stateless people in Southern Africa remained above 8.4 million, a result of conflict and internal displacement in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Mozambique, political violence in the Central African Republic resulting in refugee movements into Southern Africa, and the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in eastern DRC.  

UNHCR responded to vast and repeated displacement in the DRC, documenting more than 27,400 human rights violations and abuses, especially in eastern DRC. Gender-based violence was a focus of UNHCR’s protection work, including in the DRC, where it prioritized prevention and community-based approaches, and in Cabo Delgado in Mozambique, where UNHCR’s strategy aimed at reducing risks and ensuring quality services for survivors.  

UNHCR integrated cash assistance into regular programming in six operations, undertook site expansion and shelter construction to decongest Malawi’s Dzaleka refugee camp and, with the Vodafone Foundation, expanded the Instant Network School programme to 12 schools in the DRC. The economic fallout from COVID-19 pushed previously self-sufficient refugees and asylum seekers to seek humanitarian assistance, even those included in national COVID-19 plans. Access to testing fell short, and less than 3% of refugees and asylum seekers received one dose of vaccine, except in South Africa where vaccine coverage reached 10% of refugees and asylum seekers. Cash assistance for 222,000 vulnerable people softened the impact of the pandemic, and UNHCR and partners played a vital role in sustaining health care, including nutrition and HIV services for refugees.  

To strengthen accountability to affected populations, UNHCR added community-based protection staff in the DRC and Mozambique and a new digital platform in South Africa. UNHCR also invested in efforts to reduce waiting times for receiving asylum and refugee status – by providing legal aid to enhance access to documentation, expanding biometric registration, and strengthening national systems in five States. Zimbabwe incorporated alternatives to detention in its referral mechanism for asylum seekers and refugees, while the Republic of the Congo passed a law establishing the right to asylum and refugee status and worked towards ratification of the African Union Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa (Kampala Convention).  

To tackle statelessness, nine operations collected qualitative data, while four States considered addressing statelessness in upcoming censuses. UNHCR partners’ legal clinics helped identify and assist stateless persons or those at risk of statelessness in Madagascar, Mozambique and South Africa, while UNHCR supported the Republic of the Congo’s initiative to provide 25,000 birth certificates to undocumented people.  

UNHCR implemented an African Development Bank (AfDB) livelihoods project in Zimbabwe and began AfDB projects in Mozambique to support electricity access, agriculture and small traders. In Zambia’s Mantapala refugee settlement, a Japan International Cooperation Agency rice cultivation project aimed to boost self-reliance. UNHCR and partners helped gender-based violence survivors with vocational training in DRC, and continued to roll out the graduation approach in Mozambique. COVID-19-related restrictions slowed resettlement, with only 3,105 submissions and 1,400 departures in the region. Over 30,000 refugees, primarily Burundians, Central Africans and South Sudanese, returned to their home countries from countries of asylum in Southern Africa, mainly the DRC.  

Impact of the Global Compact on Refugees

The number of Global Refugee Forum (GRF) pledges in Southern Africa increased from 137 in 2019 to 152 in 2021, with six new pledges by Botswana on statelessness and one by Eswatini on refugee status determination and livelihoods. 85% of the pledges reported were in progress. In October 2021, UNHCR and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) convened a virtual conference on operationalizing GRF pledges, attended by representatives of 16 SADC member States, which concluded with a draft action plan for SADC’s endorsement. 

Among the pledges fulfilled in 2021, the Republic of the Congo identified over 150,000 people not registered at birth and issued birth certificates to more than 25,000, including 5,000 from ethnic minority groups. It also adopted a law establishing the right to asylum and the status of refugees, enshrining the principle of non-refoulement and temporary access to territory. Eswatini confirmed the allocation of 1,095 hectares of land to support refugee agricultural activities, and in South Africa a regional training centre opened its doors, part of an Africa-wide plan with the International Association of Refugee and Migration Judges. It trained 40 judges from 14 African countries in 2021, and aims to train 2,000 legal practitioners and judges on asylum and statelessness by 2023.  

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Key results and trends in 2021

UNHCR'S programmatic results

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Chart - Cash assistance
cash assistance chart
Chart 2
SA registration
Chart 3
Resettlement chart
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UNHCR'S COVID-19 response

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Financial information

Consequences of underfunding

The region received only 55% of its $390 million budget, a result that owed much to donors of unearmarked funding, who contributed more than one third of the total. The overall gap in funding meant that UNHCR could not fully meet a marked increase in demand for voluntary repatriation. Although the number of refugees voluntarily repatriating more than doubled to 14,000, not all those wishing to return could be helped to do so, including at least 500 individuals who indicated a desire to return to Burundi and the DRC. Failing to fund repatriation is a false economy, since refugees and asylum seekers will simply require assistance in host countries for a longer period.  

Underfunding also necessitated a 40% cut in protection monitoring in the DRC, significantly reducing UNHCR’s ability to assess and address protection needs in areas affected by conflict and frequent reports of human rights violations and abuses. UNHCR’s available resources to reinforce community-led protection activities were also reduced by 57% compared to 2020. 

The lack of funding also meant focusing on only the highest priority cases of need for life-saving support. Shelter assistance was often limited to emergency shelter for the most vulnerable IDPs in the DRC and Mozambique, rather than better quality transitional shelter for a wider group of those in need. It was estimated that more than 540,000 displaced people in northern Mozambique required basic shelter assistance and lacked the most critical household items, including cooking utensils. Nearly 100,000 were left without minimum support for shelter and household items. 

While food insecurity has increased across the region, funding shortfalls forced WFP to reduce rations, resulting in an increased need for UNHCR’s cash assistance, often provided thanks to the availability of flexible funding. The effect of COVID-19 on livelihoods and food security risks drove refugees to resort to negative coping mechanisms. In addition, food insecurity increased the need for monitoring the nutritional status of refugees. Three Standard Expanded Nutrition Surveys were carried out in 2021 in the Republic of the Congo, Malawi and Zambia to develop baseline data.  

Budget by pillar

Budget and expenditure

Chart 5 - funding
funding chart
Chart 4 - Poc
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Key achievements and impact

Promoting access to and support for asylum

12 out of 16 countries had national asylum systems in place by year end. UNHCR focused on strengthening their asylum procedures, building the capacity of eligibility officers and enhancing management and decisions. It advocated with governments and regional economic communities for the principle of non-refoulement and provided legal aid to enhance access to documentation. Although COVID-19 border closures affected access to asylum, by the end 2021 most countries had either reopened borders or implemented systems to admit refugees and asylum seekers under specific or exceptional procedures.  

UNHCR and South Africa’s Ministry of Home Affairs agreed on a “backlog project”, aiming for an 88% reduction in pending asylum applications. Actions were also underway to strengthen national asylum systems and refugee status determination backlogs in Angola, Eswatini, Malawi and Mozambique. Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe approved UNHCR’s use of its biometric identity management system to enhance the registration of asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons. UNHCR also supported alternatives to detention in Zimbabwe, which were incorporated in the referral mechanism for asylum seekers and refugees. 

Following UNHCR’s Africa-wide action plan with the International Association of Refugee and Migration Judges, a regional training centre in Cape Town, South Africa, began delivering training on asylum and statelessness in 2021, with the objective of training 2,000 legal practitioners and judges by 2023. This strategic partnership will support UNHCR engagement on policy and judicial decisions in the years to come.  

Coordinating and delivering protection, assistance and solutions for IDPs  

In the DRC, intercommunal conflict and violence triggered vast and repeated displacement, particularly in eastern provinces. UNHCR led the protection cluster, the shelter cluster and the non-food items working group, and co-led the camp coordination and camp management working group. UNHCR documented more than 27,400 human rights violations and abuses as a result of protection monitoring activities and issued more than 68 protection reports and analysis products to support response, planning and advocacy. UNHCR reached more than 60,600 households with core relief items, including nearly 7,400 people displaced in May 2021 by the Nyiragongo volcano eruption. UNHCR also provided more than 108,000 people with emergency shelter support and nearly 3,000 households with cash grants for rental accommodation. UNHCR also ensured that 4,600 reported survivors of gender-based violence received psychosocial counselling, 1,900 received legal assistance and 2,600 received medical assistance. 

Large-scale internal displacement persisted in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province. While the security situation hindered humanitarian access in some locations, UNHCR was able to scale up its protection presence and humanitarian activities. UNHCR led the protection cluster at national and sub-national levels, delivered shelter and core relief items, and supported camp coordination and camp management. As a result of these efforts, UNHCR reached 13,200 households with core relief items; ensured 43,000 people in six IDP sites had access to mental health and psychosocial support services for survivors of gender-based violence; reached 34,500 people with site management and support services; provided legal counselling and assistance to 17,000 individuals, of whom 10,000 received civil documentation; and reached 3,300 people with awareness-raising on prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse.  

Working towards durable solutions  

In 2021, more than 30,000 refugees returned to their countries of origin from the Southern Africa region – primarily from the DRC – to Burundi, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. At the same time, 884 refugees returned to their home countries in Southern Africa from countries of asylum across the continent. In Zambia, voluntary repatriation of refugees from Mantapala refugee settlement to Pweto in the DRC commenced, with 300 people departing in late December 2021. Preparations were also made for voluntary repatriation of refugees to the DRC from South Africa.  


Resettlement quickened from 2020 but fewer than 1,400 departures achieved only 59% of UNHCR’s target, due to pandemic-related delays in recruitment of the staff required. Other complementary pathways were also explored, including through education, labour migration and family reunification.   

Prospects for local integration were also pursued, especially for former Angolan and Rwandan refugees remaining in countries of asylum after cessation of their refugee status. In line with the Global Compact on Refugees, livelihood initiatives and economic inclusion contributed toward local integration efforts and remained a priority for the region. To this end, UNHCR stepped up engagement with development actors, who committed resources to refugee economic inclusion programmes, and pursued opportunities for settlement approaches and socioeconomic integration in Eswatini, Lesotho and Namibia.  

Enhancing partnerships  

UNHCR strengthened engagement with a wide range of stakeholders and promoted implementation of pledges made at the Global Refugee Forum and the High-Level Segment on Statelessness. Virtual regional consultations with NGOs were held in September 2021, bringing together some 600 participants, and concluded in a joint action plan for strengthened collaboration on localization, partnerships and Global Refugee Forum pledge implementation.  

UNHCR provided significant inputs on humanitarian policy and coordination issues to the Regional Inter-Agency Standing Committee and engaged with the Africa Regional Collaborative Platform, which seeks to promote a joint UN policy voice through the eight Opportunity/Issue-based Coalitions (OIBC). UNHCR served as co-convener of OIBC-7 on forced displacement and migration.  

UNHCR also coordinated the 2021 DRC Regional Refugee Response Plan (RRRP) ensuring an overarching vision and coherent engagement in the response for Congolese refugees among 69 partners in seven neighbouring countries of asylum, namely: Angola, Burundi, the Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, the United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.  

In partnership with development actors such as the African Development Bank, the World Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, UNHCR secured the inclusion of people of concern into several large-scale development projects including in the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In line with the Global Compact on Refugees, these partnerships serve to strengthen livelihoods and resilience and to promote economic inclusion for people of concern. 

Preventing, addressing and resolving statelessness  

UNHCR engaged a wide range of stakeholders at the regional and country levels to promote the implementation of pledges on preventing, addressing and resolving statelessness made at the Global Refugee Forum and the High-Level Segment on Statelessness. By the end of 2021, qualitative data on statelessness to better inform response planning was being collected in nine countries including Angola, the Republic of the Congo, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eswatini, Madagascar, Malawi, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. UNHCR engaged with the Governments of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zambia on including statelessness-related questions in upcoming population censuses. 

In Madagascar, Mozambique and South Africa, UNHCR’s partners identified and assisted stateless persons and those at risk of statelessness through legal clinics. In the case of those born in transit and in host countries, birth certificates issued by the civil registry helped prevent statelessness. In the Republic of the Congo, UNHCR supported a government initiative during which 25,000 undocumented Congolese received a birth certificate in 2021, including 5,000 people from the indigenous minority. In Malawi and Zambia, UNHCR supported the issuance of national identity documentation to help prevent refoulement and arrest; facilitate inclusion in national health, education and social protection systems; and enable legal access to the labour market, as well as to banking and mobile and other digital services.  

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DRC Situation

2021 Year-end population figures

  • Refugees and asylum seekers: 853,000, 50% women and 51% children
  • IDPs due to conflict: 5.4 million
  • IDP returns: 1.04 million
  • Refugees and asylum seekers in the DRC: 526,000

2021 Situation overview

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) remains one of the most complex and long-standing humanitarian crises in Africa, with 5.4 million IDPs due to conflict as of December 2021. At the same time, there were 853,000 Congolese refugees and asylum seekers in neighbouring countries immediately affected by the DRC situation, and almost 1 million Congolese refugees and asylum seekers across the continent as a whole. Most displaced people have fled from the eastern areas of North and South Kivu and Ituri Provinces, and areas in Kasai, Haut Katanga and Tanganyika Provinces.

Intercommunal conflicts and military offensives continued to trigger vast and repeated displacement of millions of people, especially in the east of the country. Gender-based violence remained a major concern, compounded by a weak judicial system and widespread impunity. In May 2021 the President of the Republic declared an état de siège (“state of siege”) for the provinces of Ituri and North Kivu to address deteriorating insecurity. Despite these efforts, several parts of the country remained engulfed in violence and armed conflict at the end of 2021. This overall situation in the DRC was further aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic, Ebola and measles outbreaks, severe food insecurity, and natural disasters including the volcanic eruption of the Mount Nyiragongo volcano in the east of the country in May 2021.

2021 also saw an increase of 20% in security incidents for humanitarians in eastern DRC, with a spike in kidnappings and increased potential to be targeted in attacks. While UNHCR and partners reinforced security protocols for operational continuity, the situation presented major challenges for humanitarian access and assistance delivery.

For the IDP response, UNHCR led the protection cluster, the shelter cluster and the non-food items working group, and co-led the camp coordination and camp management working group. Under UNHCR’s response in the DRC, 108,000 IDPs received emergency shelter support and 3,000 IDP households received cash grants for rental accommodation; 4,600 reported gender-based violence survivors received psychosocial counselling, 1,900 received legal assistance and 2,600 received medical assistance.

Under the 2021 Regional Refugee Response Plan for the DRC Situation, UNHCR led 66 partners in seven neighbouring countries of asylum to provide multisectoral assistance, protection and solutions. Under the RRRP, in Angola, Burundi, the Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia, 460,000 women received sanitary materials; 284,000 refugee children were enrolled in primary education and 37,000 in secondary education; 76,000 households received core relief items; 76,000 people of concern with specific needs received support (75,000 non-cash and 1,000 cash grants); 50,000 people of concern received legal assistance; 8,400 people of concern received production kits or inputs for agriculture/livestock/fisheries activities; and 2,400 reported gender-based violence incidents for which survivors received psychosocial counselling.

While humanitarian assistance was an essential component of UNHCR’s response, promotion of sustainable livelihoods and inclusion of refugees into national development plans were also promoted, reflecting the whole-of-society approach of the Global Compact on Refugees.

Meanwhile, the DRC also hosted over 526,000 refugees and asylum seekers who fled from violence in neighbouring countries, mainly Burundi, the Central African Republic (CAR), Rwanda and South Sudan. Notably, insecurity in the CAR during the run-up to and following the December 2020 presidential and legislative elections led to an influx of refugees, mainly into the Congolese provinces of North Ubangi, South Ubangi and Bas-Uele. UNHCR’s multisectoral response to the influx from the CAR provided protection and assistance to more than 72,000 new refugees in 2021, including registration, core relief items and shelter assistance, and access to basic services such as water, sanitation and hygiene, health and nutrition services.