East and Horn of Africa and Great Lakes


The East and Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region hosted 4.9 million refugees and asylum seekers, as well as 12 million internally displaced people. Nearly 200,000 people became refugees, driven by conflict, drought, flooding, food shortages, insecurity, and localized violence. 

A man selling in a shop
Surafuel Gebrehiwot, 54, fled his home in Ethiopia’s Tigray region when fighting started. He became separated from his wife and children on the journey to Sudan. He ended up in Tundaybah camp and his family were sent to Um Rakuba. He has not seen them for more than a month. Resourceful Ethiopian refugees start new lives in Sudanese camp. © UNHCR/Ahmed Kwarte
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

By the end of 2021, the East and Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region hosted 4.9 million refugees and asylum seekers, as well as 12 million internally displaced people. Nearly 200,000 people became refugees, driven by conflict, drought, flooding, food shortages, insecurity and localized violence. 

2021 saw a widespread relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions, however asylum restrictions remained in force in some countries and prevented some asylum requests and registrations from going ahead. Despite UNHCR’s demarches, incidents of refoulement also occurred throughout 2021. Some refugees moved onward, in often risky conditions, towards the Mediterranean or southern Africa. Refugee status determination was slow and costly, with a long-standing backlog of 180,000 asylum applications pending adjudication. UNHCR collaborated with the East African Community (EAC), the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and the African Union Commission to promote the rights of forcibly displaced people and access to services and civil documentation. An EAC/IGAD Regional Protection Dialogue provided recommendations on non-refoulement and the right to asylum, as well as socioeconomic inclusion, solutions and other topics. 

Several countries made progress on pledges relating to statelessness, including Rwanda which published a new nationality law facilitating naturalization. UNHCR released a study analysing risk factors for statelessness in the Horn of Africa and launched another on the Great Lakes region with the ICGLR Secretariat. 

Underfunding of WFP meant that rations had to be cut for over 3.5 million refugees in the region, resulting in reportedly high levels of acute malnutrition, stunting and anaemia. With conflicts and COVID-19 hindering direct contact, UNHCR employed remote protection monitoring and interventions and supported the role of community structures in tackling child protection and gender-based violence. Staffing was strengthened in Ethiopia and Sudan to respond to gender-based violence in the northern Ethiopia emergency. Pandemic-related school closures added to the risks for children in emergency situations. UNHCR pushed for the safe re-opening of schools and minimal school dropouts, especially for girls, and there was notable progress in refugees’ and returnees’ inclusion in national education plans. UNHCR provided $37.9 million in cash assistance to over 1 million people, mainly via bank transfers or as mobile money, helping to pay for energy, shelter, hygiene, livelihoods and repatriation. UNHCR’s livelihoods strategy in Kenya helped revive refugee employment and reduce food insecurity. UNHCR worked with IGAD and other partners under the Solutions Initiative for Sudan and South Sudan to advance frameworks for comprehensive solutions, and both countries adopted national solutions strategies. UNHCR co-convened the Africa Private Sector Forum on Forced Displacement, bringing business leaders and philanthropists from across Africa to discuss innovative solutions. 

Over 270,000 South Sudanese spontaneously returned, and UNHCR facilitated voluntary repatriation for 66,000 Burundian refugees. UNHCR facilitated returns for over 2,700 Somalis and 2,000 Rwandans, whilst over 1,000 refugees returned to Ethiopia. Resettlement was slowed by insecurity and political instability in Ethiopia and Sudan, camp consolidation in Rwanda and the United Republic of Tanzania, and by COVID-19. Nevertheless, several operations resumed in-person resettlement interviews, and submissions were made for 73% of around 22,500 resettlement places. 9,600 refugees departed for resettlement, twice the 2020 number.  

Impact of the Global Compact on Refugees

Out of over 600 pledges with potential relevance to the region, 257 specifically targeted at least one host country from the region, mostly in education (25%), statelessness (20%) and jobs and livelihoods (16%). Updates on the implementation of almost 150 of the 257 pledges had been recorded by year end. 83% of the pledges were in progress, while 18 had been fulfilled. Interest in progress on pledges was evident from the Regional Economic Inclusion Working Group, where UNHCR and NRC co-hosted representatives of 66 INGOs, UN agencies, International Financial Institutions, research institutes and other organizations, with over 300 members in all.  

Among the pledges, Ethiopia’s jobs and livelihoods pledge was supported by agriculture and livestock projects worth $88.5 million, backed by partners such as the IKEA Foundation, GIZ, Good Neighbors Ethiopia, UNCDF and WFP. The Government of Denmark supported Rwanda’s jobs and livelihoods pledge, committing to provide $1.6 million for agricultural projects benefiting 1,883 refugee and host community households. The Government of Denmark and the LEGO Foundation both supported Uganda’s Education Response Plan, while the European Union launched an $11 million environmental response to match Uganda’s pledge on natural resources. The Republic of Korea provided a multi-year $5 million contribution to Uganda’s refugee response and was a contributor to the Country-Based Pooled Funds to help Sudan and Ethiopia, among other countries. 

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Key results and trends in 2021

UNHCR'S programmatic results

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Chart - Cash assistance
EHAGL cash chart
Chart 2
EHAGL resettlement chart
Chart 3
Individual registrations chart
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UNHCR'S COVID-19 response

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Financial information

Consequences of underfunding

UNHCR’s regional budget of $1.9 billion was only 51% funded by the end of the year. Funding shortfalls to WFP reduced food aid to 3.5 million refugees, primarily in Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania, leading to high levels of acute malnutrition, stunting, anaemia and critical protection concerns. 

The pandemic prompted some donors to reduce funding for UNHCR in Kenya, or to earmark funds more tightly. UNHCR could not meet some supply chain and partner costs, undermining basic services and protection work. In Sudan, funds to construct school infrastructure and furniture in refugee-hosting locations were lacking, and more than 3.1 million children needed financial support for their formal education, including over 2 million host community residents, 617,000 IDPs, 241,000 refugees and 166,000 returnees. Around 70% of refugee children of primary school age and 90% of secondary school age were not receiving any formal education, with South Sudanese refugees particularly affected.  

In the United Republic of Tanzania, underfunding meant UNHCR and partners could not provide supplementary feeding to some persons with specific needs and vulnerable children above the age of 2. 27% of people of concern in the United Republic of Tanzania’s refugee camps endured unacceptable living conditions, living in dilapidated emergency shelters and tents for a prolonged period. 

Underfunding meant refugees in Uganda lacked water supplies. 72,000 Burundian refugees received only 14.2 litres of water per person per day, barely two thirds of the minimum standard. UNHCR also faced challenges in providing sufficient water for 905,000 South Sudanese refugees spread over several settlements in Uganda. Additional funding would have ensured that SPHERE standards were met, which in turn would have reduced protection risks for women walking long distances to fetch water. 

A lack of reintegration opportunities for returning Burundian refugees prompted some to move onwards within Burundi or to other countries, or to go back to their country of asylum in search of education or social services. 

Budget by pillar

Budget and expenditure

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

Strengthening protection and access to quality services for persons at heightened risk 

UNHCR reached 4.9 million active individual registration records for refugees and asylum seekers in the region. State-led refugee status determination (RSD) was often slow and costly, with 180,000 applications pending at year end. Meanwhile, some of UNHCR’s mandate RSD activities continued to be undertaken remotely at Rwanda’s Emergency Transit Mechanism and in Somalia. Community structures played an ever greater role, including in child protection and the prevention, mitigation and response to gender-based violence. 14,000 incidents of gender-based violence were reported for which survivors received psychosocial counselling while 7,000 unaccompanied or separated children had a best interests assessment initiated or completed. Although COVID-19 border restrictions eased, access to territory and asylum was sub-optimal, and despite UNHCR’s demarches, incidents of refoulement occurred throughout 2021.  

UNHCR strengthened staffing to respond to gender-based violence in northern Ethiopia and took proactive measures against sexual exploitation and abuse, strengthening understanding of the UNHCR code of conduct and “zero tolerance” in the region. UNHCR coordinated and co-chaired inter-agency meetings on community-based protection, prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, child protection, and mental health and psychosocial support, and launched a good practice learning programme for community-based protection. Small grants were provided to women-led refugee groups and the engagement of community-based organizations strengthened the empowerment of women and girls in communities. Community-based structures also embedded refugee locations into COVID-19 surveillance and alert networks and awareness programmes.  

UNHCR collaborated with the East African Community, the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the African Union Commission in an effort to ensure that people of concern effectively benefit from regional protection frameworks granting them access to services and civil documentation, and that their rights are upheld. 

Providing life-saving humanitarian assistance and access to social services  

The pandemic overstretched the region’s fragile health systems, and refugees, particularly in urban areas, faced financial barriers in accessing health care in some countries. UNHCR ensured the vaccination of some 330,000 people of concern and pursued inclusion in health insurance schemes and social protection, ensuring that humanitarian health care workers were included in preparedness and response training and that access to government isolation and treatment facilities was granted. UNHCR procured and distributed personal protective equipment and medicines across the region, helping to develop contingency plans and provide financial support as required. 

As schools began to reopen, UNHCR shared best practices and guidance materials to facilitate safe reopening and minimize dropouts, especially among girls, building solidarity through events such as a roundtable on financing girls’ education. Cooperation with Ministries of Education brought notable progress in the inclusion of refugees and returnees in national education plans and budgeting. Kenya finalized a draft education policy on the inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers, while Somalia’s Ministry of Education took over management of some private schools, which will facilitate the gradual inclusion of refugees. Djibouti’s 2021–2025 Education Plan fully integrates refugees into the national system. In Uganda, UNHCR supported drafting of the Education in Emergency Response Plan 2 to further the inclusion agenda for refugees. Overall, 881,000 children were enrolled in primary education, 117,000 students in secondary education and 680 people of concern received tertiary education scholarships. 

At least 53% of households in the region had access to adequate dwellings. 497,000 households were provided with core relief items to meet basic needs, and 204,000 women and girls were provided with sanitary materials.  

Promoting self-reliance and economic inclusion of refugees and asylum seekers 

As most countries in the region lack strong social insurance and protection/assistance schemes, UNHCR increased the scope of cash assistance to shield people from the socioeconomic repercussions of the pandemic. This mainly targeted those in urban settings and other highly vulnerable groups, such as survivors of gender-based violence, to minimize the impact from increased unemployment and the concurrent reduction in food rations in many countries.  

UNHCR disbursed $38 million in cash assistance to over 1 million people in the region, supporting needs for energy, shelter, hygiene, livelihoods and repatriation. Most transfers were made digitally, 70% via bank transfers, 10% as mobile money and a smaller amount through prepaid cards. Post-distribution monitoring showed 87% of households preferred cash assistance combined with in-kind assistance. To promote livelihoods and self-reliance, 15,000 people of concern were provided with entrepreneurship and business training. 

Pursuing durable solutions  

Returns resumed in early 2021 as borders began to reopen and COVID-19 restrictions eased. 342,000 refugees returned to their countries of origin, including 66,000 UNHCR-facilitated returns to Burundi from DRC, Rwanda, Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania, and Zambia, and 270,000 self-organized returns to South Sudan. UNHCR also supported the Burundi voluntary repatriation programme by ensuring COVID-19 testing of returnees. UNHCR facilitated returns for over 2,800 Somalis and 2,000 Rwandans, whilst over 1,100 refugees returned to Ethiopia. 

Resettlement was hindered by insecurity and political instability in Ethiopia and Sudan, camp consolidation in Rwanda and the United Republic of Tanzania, and the impact of COVID-19. Nevertheless, UNHCR resumed resettlement field missions and in-person interviews in several countries. A total of 23,000 resettlement places were allocated to the region in 2021 from all resettlement countries, and submissions were made for 17,000 individuals, representing 73% of the available places and almost double the number of submissions made in 2020. Further, 9,600 resettlement departures occurred in 2021, compared to 4,800 in 2020. Many countries sought creative ways to expand existing complementary pathways for refugees, including family reunification, labour mobility and educational opportunities. 

Preventing, addressing and resolving statelessness  

In 2021, several countries made progress on pledges relating to eradicating statelessness. Somalia adopted a National Action Plan to end statelessness and other countries’ Plans were under preparation with UNHCR’s support. UNHCR also provided support to the Governments of Rwanda on nationality reform. Rwanda published a new nationality law facilitating naturalization for stateless persons. Progress was also made in ensuring that all refugees born in Rwanda are registered and issued with birth certificates. UNHCR’s efforts to prevent and reduce statelessness in Kenya saw 1,700 people granted Kenyan citizenship while 1,200 were assisted to make applications for registration as Kenyan citizens. Advocacy for the amendment of the Citizenship and Immigration Act to remove the time-limited provision for the registration of stateless persons continued. The Kenyan Government recognized 50 people of Indian descent, and a petition to recognize people of Pemba descent is under consideration. 

UNHCR released “Citizenship and statelessness in the Horn of Africa,” a study that analyses risk factors leading to statelessness in the region. A meeting between UNHCR and the ICGLR Secretariat reviewed the progress of the implementation of statelessness commitments. A regional ICGLR study on protracted refugee situations, risks of statelessness and prospects for durable solutions in the Great Lakes region was also launched in 2021. Data collection has commenced in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Coordinating and delivering protection, assistance and solutions for IDPs 

Ongoing and escalating conflicts in locations such as northern Ethiopia and Darfur in Sudan presented challenges for IDP engagement, requiring UNHCR to focus on life-saving activities and sometimes employing remote protection monitoring and interventions. In 2021, UNHCR expanded its programme to respond to the growing internal displacement situation in Ethiopia. Together with partners, UNHCR reached over 1.7 million IDPs and returning IDPs with protection services, shelter and core relief items in nine of Ethiopia’s regions. In addition, UNHCR supported over 580,000 IDPs in communal settings, the majority in 68 sites in Amhara and Tigray regions, through camp coordination and camp management cluster support in each region.  

In Darfur, UNHCR provided 2,600 IDPs with paralegal support and 80 IDPs with representation in formal courts. Additionally, approximately 10,000 IDPs received awareness raising on legal rights. UNHCR also distributed personal sanitary kits to 890 women and girls in Abu Shouk settlement in El Fasher in north Darfur. 

Climate-related displacements also affected the region. In Burundi, 80% of IDPs were displaced due to natural disasters and the adverse effects of climate change. In South Sudan, flooding and insecurity pushed some partner agencies out of the locations where they normally provided protection services, causing gaps in protection and assistance. Strong advocacy continued with water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) partners to improve WASH facilities. UNHCR distributed face masks, soap, buckets, mosquito nets and sanitary kits to the most vulnerable populations. 

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Burundi Situation

2021 Year-end population figures

  • Refugees: 298,000
  • IDPs: 19,000
  • Returned refugees since September 2017: 185,000
  • Others of concern: 5,000

2021 Situation Overview

By the end of December 2021, countries in the Great Lakes Region were host to some 298,000 Burundian refugees. The country has experienced relative political stability since the political transition in May 2020 and the overall working environment, including the political and security situation, improved. This triggered an increased interest among Burundian refugees in returning home. In 2021, UNHCR facilitated the return of 66,000 Burundian refugees, up from 40,000 in 2020. While UNHCR facilitates voluntary repatriation for those who express the desire to return, UNHCR is not currently promoting returns. The provision of international protection, humanitarian assistance and opportunities for inclusion remain important. Those who have repatriated require more support to ensure sustainable reintegration.

Burundian refugees in the region continued to face multiple protection risks, in particular gender-based violence, as a result of limited access to livelihoods, school closures, overcrowded shelters, lack of domestic energy supply and reduced humanitarian funding. Refugee children (over 50% of the refugee population) were exposed to these risks and the situation of unaccompanied and separated children was particularly concerning, as many suffered neglect and adolescents increasingly resorted to negative coping mechanisms.

The Burundi Regional Refugee Response Plan remained underfunded with only 37% of the resources required. This led to acute gaps, including food ration cuts, inadequate shelters, lack of medicines, deficient infrastructure for water, sanitation and hygiene, and insufficient livelihoods activities. A large majority of the refugee population remained dependent on humanitarian assistance. The COVID-19 pandemic further compounded the situation. Notwithstanding these challenges, UNHCR and partners promoted an inclusive protection and solutions approach by advocating for refugee integration into national systems such as education, health, environment, livelihoods, child protection and birth registration to access services along with the host communities.

Ethiopia Emergency

2021 Year-end population figures

  • Refugees (Ethiopian refugees in Sudan and Eritrean refugees in Ethiopia): 215,000
  • IDPs: 3.6 million

2021 Situation Overview

By the end of 2021, the conflict situation that began in the Tigray region of Ethiopia in November 2020 had significantly worsened with reported internal displacement and ongoing cross-border movements into Sudan. An estimated 3.6 million people were internally displaced as the conflict spread to the regions of Afar and Amhara. The establishment of a new refugee site in the Amhara region began in 2021 and was expected to host some 25,000 Eritrean refugees remaining in the camps in Tigray, as soon as voluntary relocation is possible.

A total of 57,000 Ethiopian refugees, (majority of whom arrived in 2020) were registered in Sudan by the end of 2021 where the emergency response remained focused on providing life-saving assistance and protection in the new refugee camps in Gedaref and Blue Nile states in Sudan, while ensuring preparedness in the event of a new influx.

UNHCR scaled up its response to address the humanitarian needs of IDPs for protection, shelter and core relief items in the Tigray region with the onset of the crisis. In 2021, UNHCR increased the operational footprint throughout Tigray and expanded its presence and operational response into Afar and Amhara regions as of August 2021. As UNHCR expanded its presence, UNHCR also activated and strengthened coordination leadership roles for the protection and camp coordination and camp management clusters, which are now active in all three regions. Stocks of core relief items for over 100,000 people were also put in place.

In the last quarter of 2021, over 1.2 million IDPs in northern Ethiopia were provided with protection and assistance services. UNHCR activated sub-regional protection clusters, with partnerships for protection outreach and monitoring activities in key locations, establishing a total of 65 protection desks for counselling, referrals and case management in the three regions.

In eastern Sudan, host to refugees from northern Ethiopia, UNHCR and other partner agencies worked to strengthen protection and continued to provide assistance in 2021. UNHCR operated in the refugee-hosting sites: Um Rakuba camp, Tunaydbah camp, Hamdayet transit centre, Babikri, Village 6 and Village 8 reception centre.

With anticipated new arrivals in 2022, UNHCR planned to expand the existing Tunaydbah and Um Rakuba camps for Ethiopian refugees while putting in place a contingency plan for larger arrivals at the same time. An additional site was identified for potential arrivals from the Amhara region.

UNHCR and partners made significant efforts in scaling up the protection response, with particular attention to gender-based violence and sexual exploitation and abuse. Some of the key areas of work included strengthening referral pathways, data sharing, awareness raising, and supporting community-based networks including additional protection desks and child friendly spaces and psychosocial support. Inter-agency training was provided to government officials, humanitarian actors and refugee volunteers.

Somalia Situation

2021 Year-end population figures

  • Refugees and asylum seekers: 601,000
  • IDPs: 2.97 million
  • Returns: 92,000 assisted refugee returnees since December 2014

2021 Situation Overview

The Somalia situation, the world’s longest refugee crisis, remained unresolved and made little progress to a resolution. Since the political instability and a civil war that has lasted for decades, more than 601,000 Somali refugees and asylum seekers continued to reside in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Yemen. An additional 2.97 million Somalis were internally displaced within the country. 

Some 2,600 Somali refugees in the region, the majority returning from Yemen, returned to Somalia in 2021, with only 330 assisted by UNHCR.

The operational context in Somalia remained complex and characterized by insecurity and displacement. UNHCR provided assistance to IDPs, refugees and those who had returned but were impacted by persistent insecurity and climate shocks. A state of emergency was declared in November 2021 due to a severe drought affecting 80% of the country. The political scene was impacted by the delayed national elections which were planned for 2021.

The UNHCR-led Protection and Return Monitoring Network, implemented in partnership with NRC, reported 875,000 new internal displacements in 2021, of which 544,000 were triggered by conflict and insecurity. Displaced families continued to be in dire need of food, shelter and core relief items, and were faced with multiple protection risks. Many drought-affected families arrived in overcrowded IDP settlements, where services were already overstretched. UNHCR and partners continued to respond to the immediate needs of the displaced families directly and through the UNHCR-led clusters.

South Sudan Situation

2021 Year-end population figures

  • Refugees: 2.34 million
  • IDPs: 2.02 million
  • Returns: 630,000 self-organized refugee returns since November 2017

2021 Situation Overview

After nearly a decade of conflict and despite efforts toward implementing the peace agreement, South Sudan continued to grapple with sporadic violence, chronic food insecurity and the devastating impact of major flooding in 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic has also strained people’s resources, significantly reducing their ability to sustainably meet their needs.

The South Sudan situation continued to be the largest refugee crisis in Africa, and one of the most underfunded, with the Regional Refugee Response Plan only 17% funded. Despite some progress, peace remained fragile and humanitarian challenges, including acute food insecurity, persisted. While UNHCR did not promote or facilitate returns, over 630,000 South Sudanese have spontaneously returned since 2017, although some of the returns may have been pendular. In response to the growing number of self-organized returns, UNHCR developed a solutions-oriented, area-based approach targeting high return areas through investments in medium to long-term development and peace interventions, called “Pockets of hope,” which will be piloted in 2022. Intention-to-return surveys for South Sudanese refugees in Sudan and Uganda were carried out in 2021 to inform planning and will be carried out in Ethiopia in 2022.

Governments in the five countries of asylum were supported in their efforts to integrate South Sudanese refugees in national systems for social service delivery. Refugees and local communities received help to boost their resilience by identifying and diversifying opportunities to earn a living. This was vital against a backdrop of chronic underfunding for food provision, which continued to result in regular food ration cuts.

The South Sudan situation remained a children’s crisis, with two out of three South Sudanese refugees under the age of 18. Funding was required for child protection services including to ensure proper birth registration and family reunification. Many children who were affected by school closures during the pandemic in the region needed additional support to continue with learning, including additional radio programmes which were made available for primary and secondary learners as a major remote learning modality. To assist learners who did not have access to radios, UNHCR distributed solar-charging radios to households with school-aged children to support their continuity of learning as well as self-study materials and textbooks.