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Next Steps: New dynamics of displacement

According to Article 1 of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is someone who has fled his or her country “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” While the 1951 Convention remains the key legal document defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of governments, the world has changed dramatically over the past 60 years. And so have the dynamics of displacement.

New trends require new strategies

Protecting and assisting the most vulnerable people on Earth is becoming increasingly complicated with the emergence of a number of complex and interconnected global mega-trends. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres says these trends include population growth, urbanization, food and energy insecurity, water scarcity, and climate change.

Of particular concern to UNHCR is the fact that these mega-trends are exacerbating conflict and combining in numerous ways today to oblige millions more people to flee their homelands. The reasons for displacement today are far more complex than those envisaged under the 1951 Convention, and the distinctions between refugees and migrants and voluntary and involuntary movements are becoming increasingly blurred.

Natural disasters – floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, mudslides – are increasing in frequency and intensity. While most of the displacement caused by these events is internal, they can also cause people to cross borders. None of the existing international and regional refugee law instruments, however, specifically addresses the plight of such people.

Guterres also notes that displacement caused by the slow-onset effects of climate change is largely internal as well. But through its acceleration of drought, desertification, the salinization of ground water and soil, and rising sea levels, climate change, too, can contribute to the displacement of people across international frontiers. Again, the relevant international instruments are silent on these groups of people. In addition, identifying the correlation between slow-onset processes and displacement is particularly difficult.

Other human-made calamities, such as severe socio-economic deprivation, can also cause people to flee across borders. While some may be escaping persecution, most leave because they lack any meaningful option to remain. The lack of food, water, education, health care and a livelihood would not ordinarily and by themselves sustain a refugee claim under the 1951 Convention. Nevertheless, some of these people may need some form of protection.

All of these emerging trends pose enormous challenges for the international humanitarian community. The threat of continued massive displacement is real, and the world must be prepared to deal with it. Recognizing this, the United Nations -- and UNHCR in particular -- have already begun reviewing priorities, partners and methods of work in dealing with the new dynamics of human displacement.

In December 2010, UNHCR convened a two-day meeting in Geneva to begin examining the capacity of the existing international protection framework to address the new forms of displacement. The goal of this ongoing exercise is to identify “gaps” in protecting and assisting those affected and to develop more flexible and agile ways of helping them.

At the conclusion of the initial dialogue, UNHCR said it would work with the participating states during 2011 with a view to achieving demonstrable progress in all these areas in time for a proposed ministerial-level meeting on international protection in December 2011. Several situations were given priority.

A UN peacekeeper speaks with women refugees at Farchana Camp in Chad.

A UN peacekeeper speaks with women refugees at Farchana Camp in Chad.
UN Photo/Olivia Grey Pritchard

Tackling statelessness

Stateless people are individuals who are not considered nationals by any state. While Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that “everyone has a right to a nationality,” there were at least 6.6 million people worldwide at the end of 2009 who were known to be stateless. However, an accurate global count of stateless people remains to be done. Estimates of their numbers range as high as 12 million.

Under a series of UN General Assembly resolutions dating back to 1974, UNHCR is the international organization mandated to resolve the situation of stateless individuals as well as people at risk of statelessness. And these millions of stateless people are in addition to the world’s more than 43 million refugees and internally displaced.

The global statelessness problem -- like the refugee problem -- has grown and become more complex in the decades following the adoption of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, raising questions about how this phenomenon can best be resolved in today’s world.

Examples of stateless populations can be found around the globe, often caused by exclusionary government policies that date back decades. In the Gulf States of the Middle East, for example, populations who were left out at independence are now referred to as Bidoon, literally "without" in Arabic. Under the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq, many Feili Kurds were stripped of their nationality, but this decree was repealed in 2006.

In Africa, some of the Nubian people do not enjoy citizenship rights in Kenya. In Côte d'Ivoire in West Africa, lack of clarity on their nationality status affects large numbers of people. In Europe, the break-up of the Soviet Union and the Yugoslav Federation in the 1990s led to statelessness in the new countries that emerged. The problem of state succession in both cases was compounded by large population and refugee movements. Efforts to naturalize these people and to issue nationality documentation are under way, but the situations are not yet fully resolved. Statelessness is also an issue in the Caribbean.

There have also been some success stories. In Asia, millions have received nationality in Bangladesh and Nepal. Viet Nam has naturalized a first group of former refugees from Cambodia who were stateless, and revised its legislation to make naturalization for stateless persons and the re-acquisition of nationality by former citizens easier. A number of other countries improved their birth registration systems, which is crucial to preventing statelessness. Bangladesh and Zimbabwe introduced reforms recognizing the right of women to confer nationality on their children on an equal basis with men. Kenya’s new constitution grants women equality with men in this regard. A similar reform is pending in Tunisia.

But much remains to be done. Meanwhile, millions of stateless people struggle to get by with limited access to birth registration, identity documentation, education, health care, legal employment, property ownership, political participation or freedom of movement. Women are at heightened risk of statelessness, which leaves them particularly vulnerable to abuse. Stateless children can be deprived both of their childhoods and the foundation for any hope of a better future. Denial of basic human rights impacts not only the individuals concerned but also society as a whole, in particular because excluding an entire sector of the population may create social tension and significantly impair efforts to promote economic and social development. Moreover, statelessness may lead to forced
displacement, in particular where it results from arbitrary deprivation of nationality.

UNHCR has begun a major international effort to reduce statelessness. This includes global advocacy to increase the number of nations that have signed on to the relevant conventions on statelessness. Today, only 65 states are parties to the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and only 37 are parties to the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. This compares with 147 states which are parties to
either the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol.

UNHCR is also working with governments to complete a comprehensive mapping of stateless populations worldwide. Many such populations remain uncounted. It is also promoting the inclusion of safeguards against statelessness in nationality laws. But there are currently no means for enforcing the right to nationality under international law and ambiguities remain even in the definition of statelessness.

Read more on statelessness


According to the latest population statistics, half of the world’s population or some
3.3 billion people now live in cities. The number is expected to rise to 5 billion by 2030, and 80 per cent of these urban-dwellers will live in the developing world.

While we usually think of refugees as people living in remote camps in far-flung border regions of the developing world, the reality today is that -- as with the general population -- more than half of all refugees can be found in cities. The traditional focus on camps has meant that the situation of those who are now increasingly seeking refuge in cities has often been overlooked. In recognition of this phenomenon, UNHCR is now adjusting the way it provides protection and assistance in a new, urbanized environment.

The challenges are numerous. In cities, for example, refugees tend to be more dispersed, without the ease of access found in traditional camps where protection and assistance can be provided in a more controlled environment. Refugee populations in cities can also be more diverse in terms of nationality, and they often may not have the necessary registration, permissions and documentation.

The massive outflow of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in recent years to cities in neighbouring countries, notably Damascus and Amman, underscored the scope and speed of the urban refugee phenomenon. The Middle East provides the most dramatic but far from the only current example of large-scale displaced populations in urban areas. Khartoum, Sudan, is believed to host 1.7 million displaced people and refugees. Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire, and Bogotá in Colombia have both absorbed hundreds of thousands of victims of armed conflict, swelling slums which were already poorly serviced. Former Afghan refugees returning from Iran and Pakistan and those displaced by violence in rural areas of Afghanistan have joined the even larger number of people migrating to Kabul for economic and other reasons, resulting in a several-fold increase in Kabul's population since 2001.

Often with no assets, and without basic skills and knowledge required to survive daily city life, many urban refugees desperately need help. Secure housing and social support networks may not exist. Refugees may not have basic identity documents which could help get them food rations, schooling and health care. Worse, they may not be legally entitled to work. As a result, they are soon exposed to risk – with women, children and the elderly particularly vulnerable. Xenophobia and violence, forced eviction, expulsion, harassment, extortion, arbitrary arrest and detention, refoulement (forced return), discrimination, rape, and human trafficking all figure in the dangers refugees can face. They also become targets for prostitution and organized crime.

Destination towns and cities can also be adversely impacted through increased pressure on already overstretched infrastructure, housing, medical and social services. This in turn can spark rising tensions between local and refugee populations.

To deal with this rapidly growing trend, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres is overseeing the development and implementation of a new UNHCR policy on urban displacement, with pilot projects already under way in several cities.

"We should remember that refugees' human rights travel with them,” Guterres told a 2009 international conference on urban displacement that included city officials from several countries. “They are entitled to the same protection and services in cities and towns that they have received in camps.”

But providing that help will require the cooperation of governments and municipalities that are already grappling with the growing urbanization of the general population.

"While the issue is global, conditions vary greatly from region to region and so much depends on a local response,” said Guterres. “That's why, as well as working at government level, we are highlighting the role of mayors and municipal authorities as being pivotal. We look to them in particular to help build understanding and cooperation between refugees and the local population on the ground. They can make a big difference."

Learn more about urban refugees


Climate change and natural disasters

The Earth's climate is changing at a rate that is exceeding most scientific forecasts. Over the last two decades, the number of recorded natural disasters has doubled from some 200 to over 400 per year.

While climate change has been the subject of intense debate and speculation within the scientific community, much less attention has been given to the humanitarian consequences, until recently. This is particularly true of the potential for human displacement.

Yet, climate change is already undermining the livelihoods and security of many people around the world. The Norwegian Refugee Council and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) have estimated that in 2008 alone, at least 36 million people were newly displaced by sudden natural disasters, including over 20 million displaced by disasters related to the climate.

For the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, the consequences of climate change are enormous because of its potential to generate displacement on a large scale. People affected by these changes will have to adapt, and for many it will likely mean moving to another place if they are to survive. Large population movements may, however, spark conflicts between newcomers and existing communities.

"Climate change can enhance the competition for resources – water, food, grazing lands – and that competition can trigger conflict,” says UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, who is already preparing his agency for a future upsurge in displacement linked to climate and natural disasters.

Since the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004, UNHCR has responded to some 20 natural disasters -- either operationally or through the provision of funding or aid supplies. Not all natural disasters are linked to climate change, but the increase in such events in recent years has served as a wake-up call for UN humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR. Although it is highly experienced in emergency response, involvement in natural disasters is a relatively new role for the agency, which for most of its 60-year history focused on refugees fleeing conflict and persecution. Under international law, people fleeing natural disasters are not generally considered refugees in the legal sense of the word. But the increasing United Nations focus on climate change and natural disasters has impacted UNHCR’s approach, particularly since the agency was asked to assume responsibility for the protection of internally displaced people fleeing conflict (See above, “Making Progress: Help for the internally displaced”). Now, it has also been asked by the Emergency Relief Coordinator to lead the so-called UN “protection cluster” in natural disasters.

The Inter-Agency Steering Committee has identified five climate change-related scenarios that may directly or indirectly cause massive human displacement in the future.

Hydro-meteorological disasters (floods, hurricanes/typhoons/cyclones, mudslides, etc.);

Evacuation from zones designated by governments as being too high-risk and dangerous for human habitation;

Population movements because of environmental degradation and slow-onset disaster (e.g. reduction of water availability, desertification, recurrent flooding, salinization of coastal zones, etc.);
The submersion of small island states due to rising sea levels; 
Violent conflict triggered by a decrease in essential resources (e.g. water, land, food) owing to climate change.

In each of these scenarios, people may become displaced either within their own countries or across international borders. Their plight would raise numerous questions because many would not normally qualify as refugees under existing international legal instruments.

UNHCR has already begun an international dialogue to address these questions and the so-called “protection gaps” posed by climate change and other mega-trends facing the world today (See above, “New trends require new strategies”). Following the High Commissioner’s Dialogue on Protection Challenges, it held an expert roundtable on climate change and displacement which identified a number of recommendations on climate-related displacement.

There are few easy answers. For example, the threat of rising sea levels to small, low-lying island nations is particularly complex. Over time, the rising waters may prompt internal relocation as well as steady migration abroad until such time as the island is no longer habitable. What becomes of the citizens of a country that no longer has a permanent population? Does a state continue to exist even if its population is forced to relocate elsewhere? One would hope so, but it remains unclear.

Things are a bit more clear-cut for people fleeing violence or armed conflict triggered by growing competition for essential resources such as water, land and food due to climate change. They would be viewed as either internally displaced -- if they remain within their own borders -- or as refugees in some situations -- if they cross a border. The world is already witnessing several refugee situations provoked by armed conflict with links to environmental factors in places like the Darfur region of Sudan. Should more conflicts linked to climate and environment arise in future -- as many have predicted -- the demand on UNHCR and its partners will grow even more.

Many of these new phenomena go well beyond UNHCR’s original mandate to protect, assist and seek solutions for the world's refugees. But the debate has already begun on how the organization and the rest of the humanitarian community will manage the many uncertainties of this rapidly changing international environment.


Learn more about displacement and climate change
Read UNHCR’s policy on climate change
Video -- ‘The Way Ahead’