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In praise of Africa's welcome mat

Even as refugee crises escalate in Africa, many of its nations keep borders open for those fleeing war, Ebola, terror, weather, repression. They deserve praise as much as aid for this compassion.

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    Emmanuel Ali Talka sits with his family at the Minawao refugee camp in Cameroon Feb. 18. Talka fled his village in Nigeria following a Boko Haram attack. His three daughters were kidnapped during the raid.
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Worldwide, the number of refugees has neared a 20-year high, with Africa experiencing the highest levels. Of the 10 largest refugee operations run by the United Nations, five are in Africa. Millions of people have fled the continent’s wars, Ebola outbreak, harsh climate, terrorist attacks, or political repression.

Yet even as these numbers help bring more foreign aid to Africa, they should also put a spotlight on a little-appreciated response: Many African nations have largely accommodated the refugees.

“For every instance of violent conflict in Africa, there are also incredibly inspiring examples of African compassion, hospitality, and generosity,” said Anne C. Richard, US assistant secretary of State for population, refugees, and migration, in a recent speech.

Host countries – such as Cameroon, which has accepted some 40,000 Nigerians fleeing Boko Haram – do not receive enough credit for their welcome mats. Chad, for example, despite its intense poverty, has accepted a huge refugee influx from the conflicts in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Nigeria.

While most host nations are obligated by treaty to grant first asylum, many go out of their way to also work with international agencies to provide land, jobs, schooling, health services, and other basic needs. They assist with repatriation and resettlement, or ways to integrate refugees into their societies as citizens. Niger set up special zones to allow Malian refugees to continue their nomadic lifestyle with livestock.

“Refugees don’t have to be a burden,” says Alexander Betts, a professor of migration studies at the University of Oxford. In a 2014 report on Uganda, perhaps one of the best host countries, Mr. Betts and his colleagues challenged five popular myths about refugees: that they are isolated, a burden, homogeneous, technologically illiterate, and dependent on handouts.

Uganda in particular practices a policy of self-reliance for some 220,000 refugees, giving them freedom to move and work rather than remain isolated in camps. This not only helps them but benefits the country as well.

Not every African country is so welcoming, often forcing migrants to leave or be badly treated. But new ideas in refugee management offer hope of better receptivity. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees promises “to support self-reliance and mobility, which allow displaced people to make positive contributions to their host communities.”

To some degree, African governments may be more open to refugees because “borders are highly negotiable,” as author and journalist Dayo Olopade put it in “The Bright Continent,” her 2014 book on change in Africa. “The truth is that African state divisions are less important than you’d think,” she writes, noting that 73 percent of households in Africa do not speak the official language of their countries.

Perhaps no other continent of nations has kept its arms as open to those most in need of shelter and protection for so many years. The rest of the world can give thanks, as it also helps fund much of this work.

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