Older Refugees and Internally Displaced People in African Countries: Findings from a Scoping Review of Literature

Anita Böcker and Alistair Hunter

Journal of Refugee Studies (2022) 



This paper summarizes the peer-reviewed published research on older refugees and IDPs in Africa. The authors synthesize the main findings from this literature and compare it to the knowledge base in other regions. According to UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), people aged 60 years and older make up 4 percent of refugees and asylum-seekers and 6 percent of IDPs worldwide. According to UNHCR data, more than 400,000 displaced persons in Africa were aged 60 years and older in 2019. 

The authors undertook a review of the literature in English from 2000 to 2021. Of the 141 studies that met the authors’ inclusion criteria, 16 were based on data collected in African countries, and 82 were conducted in North America or Europe. In five studies, older age is defined as greater or equal to 50 years (in line with the definition of World Health Organization African Region Office), two studies define old age as greater or equal to 60 years, six studies do not define older age, and in the remaining studies older age is defined variously as over 40, 45, or 46 years. The research population for almost half the studies consisted of IDPs. More than two-thirds of the reviewed studies have health as their primary focus. 

Main findings: 

  • Older refugees’ and IDPs’ physical health status is often precarious, despite selection effects, i.e., healthier older people are more likely to flee danger and more likely to survive difficult journeys.  
  • Food insecurity and low-diversity diet constitute a major challenge for older displaced people, with older family members often foregoing meals so that younger family members can eat more. 
  • Those aged over 50 in rural parts of Africa die at approximately five times the rate of the under 50s, and these age-based disparities are replicated in refugee and IDP camps. However, little is known about the specific health conditions of older African displaced people. 
  • Mental health is mentioned in few African studies. In Nigeria, ‘older old’ IDPs were less affected by PTSD symptoms than ‘young old’ IDPs. Outside of the Africa region few studies find that old age is a protective factor for mental health, with most studies finding an association between increased age and mental health problems. 
  • Intergenerational roles and relationships are affected by circumstances in displacement. Studies suggest that economic role reversals increase intergenerational tensions and displaced older people experience a loss of social status and feelings of infantilization. 
  • Family remains a major source of informal care and support for older displaced people. African elders are not only recipients but may also be providers of support, a finding replicated in the literature on older displaced people in other parts of the world. 
  • African studies suggest that elderly displaced people in the Africa region are ambivalent about return. Several papers noted an unwillingness to return, while others reported an existential anxiety about dying far from home. Ambivalent attitudes to return suggest displaced elders’ identities and conceptions of ‘home’ are not constant. 

In their conclusion, the authors summarize the main problems facing older refugees and IDPs including: social disintegration due to the erosion of social support systems and networks, and chronic dependency; ambivalent attitudes to return and homeland; and precarious health status, food insecurity, and insufficient healthcare facilities in camps. Also, many studies mention widespread economic insecurity, overcrowded and unsafe conditions, poverty and depression, and limited access to clean drinking water and sanitation.