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United Nations Global Issues

Refugees

Making Progress

Help for the internally displaced

With a majority of the world’s uprooted people now displaced internally within their own countries (see above “Overview of forced displacement“) rather than refugees who have fled their homelands,the humanitarian community has over the past five years agreed on a division of labour known as the “cluster approach” to respond to internal displacement and other humanitarian emergencies that previously may not have received the attention they deserved.

While UNHCR and UNRWA remain the mandated international agencies to safeguard the rights of the world’s 15 million refugees, responsibility for aiding the 27.5 million internally displaced is now being divided among several United Nations bodies. The cluster approach began taking shape in 2005 under a broader program of UN humanitarian reform aimed at providing more timely and consistent help to the internally displaced and other people affected in complex emergencies and disasters -- particularly in situations where their government is unable or unwilling to do so. This new approach involves assigning coordination responsibility for specific functions to individual international agencies with expertise in those particular sectors or “clusters” --  for example shelter, food, water, health, sanitation, management of camps, protection and so on.

Because of its long history leading the international response for the protection of refugees and the internally displaced, UNHCR is in charge of the protection cluster. In humanitarian terms, “protection” can include a broad array of activities aimed at ensuring full respect for the rights of the individual, in keeping with international human rights law, humanitarian law and refugee law. Thus, protection is not limited to survival and physical security, but covers the full range of rights, including civil and political rights, such as the right to freedom of movement, the right to political participation, and economic, social and cultural rights, including the rights to education and health. For example, protection in displacement situations could include taking steps to reduce the incidence of sexual abuse in camps; ensuring that victims have recourse to justice; promoting economic self-reliance; ensuring the equitable distribution of humanitarian aid or educational opportunities; reducing child mortality; or stressing to all sides in a conflict the need to respect human rights and humanitarian principles.

The cluster approach has now helped millions of internally displaced people in a variety of situations caused by conflict as well as natural disasters, including in Pakistan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Colombia and Yemen.

Progress was also made on the legal front when an African Union Special Summit in 2009 adopted the unprecedented Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa -- a move strongly welcomed by UNHCR.

Read more about internal displacement

Strengthening emergency response



In today’s world, displacement emergencies erupt with alarming regularity. Whether it’s a sudden outbreak of fighting that has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, or a massive earthquake displacing hundreds of thousands, a rapid humanitarian response is crucial if lives are to be saved.

As one of the world’s foremost humanitarian agencies with decades of experience in responding to crises in far-flung locations, UNHCR has built a global emergency response capacity enabling it to rapidly deploy people and material aid at very short notice. This means at any given time, it has the global reach to quickly meet the emergency needs of up to 500,000 people. It maintains a worldwide staff roster of highly trained UNHCR specialists who are on constant standby for emergency deployment anywhere in the world within 72 hours notice.  It has also positioned huge emergency stockpiles of humanitarian aid items, ranging from tents and blankets to cooking kits and large, portable warehouses, in key international logistics hubs from where these life-saving supplies can be airlifted or shipped to crises at a moment’s notice.

Read about Emergency Preparedness and Response

Help for the longer term

Refugees inside Zam Zam Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Refugees inside Zam Zam Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp in the Darfur region of Sudan.
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Once the immediate survival needs of refugees are met in an emergency, UNHCR then focuses on ensuring they get the help they need during exile, whether they are in a camp situation or living among the local community. This always begins with ensuring that governments hosting refugees properly protect them, starting with adherence to the principle of non-refoulement which forbids forcing people back to places where their lives or liberty may be at risk.

Other activities can include monitoring borders and detention facilities; training government officials on how to identify those in need of international protection; working with authorities to register asylum-seekers and refugees and provide them with identity documents; promoting a safe environment for refugees, including protection from violence and exploitation; and ensuring access to basic education and health facilities, including HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment.

Ultimately, UNHCR’s goal is to find lasting solutions for refugees through one of three possibilities:  repatriation home once conditions allow or, if return is not possible, either integration in the first country of asylum or resettlement to a third country. Repatriation has long been the primary solution for the majority of refugees. While these three solutions have enabled tens of millions of refugees to rebuild their lives over the decades, the prolongation of conflict in today’s world is presenting new challenges. Repatriation, for example, was at a 20-year low in 2009 (see “Immediate challenges” above), meaning more refugees are spending longer in exile with no solutions in sight. And that means developing countries that are hosting four-fifths of the world’s refugees are struggling under the enormous burden.

In a bid to ease this worrisome trend, UNHCR has stepped up efforts to get more developed countries to share the burden by accepting more refugees for resettlement. A total of 25 nations now have resettlement programs. In 2009, UNHCR submitted the files of more than 128,000 individual refugees to these nations for resettlement consideration -- the highest number in 16 years and more than double the 2005 figure. The number of resettlement departures -- that is, the number of refugees who actually travelled to their new homes -- was also up, to just under 85,000. But there is still a long way to go to fill the enormous needs.

Read more about refugee protection
Read more about solutions for refugees

Saving asylum

As the international community continues to grapple with the challenges posed by the increasing scope and complexity of mobility in today’s globalized world, UNHCR has developed a 10-Point Plan on Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration. The Plan is aimed at helping states address and respond to "mixed movements" in which migrants, refugees, asylum-seekers and other people with specific needs travel alongside each other, often using similar routes and modes of transport (see “Immediate Challenges” above).  While recognizing the right of states to control their borders and address national security concerns, the 10-Point Plan seeks to ensure that the measures taken to curb irregular migration do not prevent asylum-seekers and refugees from accessing the international protection they need and to which they are entitled.

The 10-Point Plan proposes practical tools and strategies that states could adopt as part of effective and coherent responses to mixed movements. The goal is to help states to incorporate refugee protection considerations into migration policies, and to ensure that asylum-seekers, refugees and other groups of people with specific needs, such as victims of trafficking, are channelled into mechanisms in ways that best meet their needs.

It includes recommendations for training and clear instructions for border guards and immigration officials so they know how to respond to asylum applications. It also calls for appropriate reception arrangements to be set up to meet the needs of the basic human needs of people involved in mixed movements.

UNHCR has noted that the development of an effective response to mixed movements cannot be managed through migration policies and border controls alone. A coherent and comprehensive approach is required, with particular attention on poverty reduction, job creation and the strengthening of public and community services. Greater efforts are also needed to address the challenges of conflict prevention, conflict resolution and peace-building.

To combat growing xenophobia in some countries, UNHCR has also issued guidelines to its offices worldwide on strategies for countering intolerance and growing anti-foreigner sentiment.

Read details of The 10-Point Plan of Action