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Overview of forced displacement


The 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees is the key legal document in defining who is a refugee, their rights and the legal obligations of governments. According to Article 1 of that Convention, 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.”

Millions Uprooted

There are currently some 43 million uprooted victims of conflict and persecution worldwide. More than 15 million of them are refugees who have fled their countries, while another 27 million are people who remain displaced by conflict inside their own homelands -- so-called “internally displaced people”.

International law has long made a distinction between refugees, who have crossed a state border and are protected by the 1951 Convention, and the internally displaced, who are not. In terms of their needs and vulnerabilities, however, the effects of their forced displacement may be similar: they face loss of their home, their livelihood, their community. Regardless of whether they have crossed a border or not, they deserve help. And with internally displaced people today outnumbering refugees by nearly two to one, the needs are greater than ever.

For the past six decades, two United Nations agencies, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), have been responsible for safeguarding the rights and well-being of refugees. UNHCR currently cares for 10.4 million refugees worldwide, while UNRWA helps some 4.8 million registered Palestine refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory.

But until recently, growing numbers of conflict-generated internally displaced people often fell through the cracks. While primary responsibility for the internally displaced has always rested with their governments, often those states are either unable or unwilling to help. Recognizing this, the humanitarian community today generally views the internally displaced as equally deserving of protection and assistance.

For its part, the United Nations has been taking a more coordinated approach toward easing the plight of the internally displaced (see “Making Progress” below). Because of its 60 years of work with tens of millions of refugees worldwide, UNHCR is taking a central role in these efforts. But, as festering displacement situations such as Darfur, Somalia, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo testify, there is still a very long way to go.

Read more about internal displacement

Three immediate challenges

Kosovar refugees fleeing their homeland. [Blace area, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia]

Kosovar refugees fleeing their homeland. [Blace area, The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia]
UN Photo/R LeMoyne

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, whose agency works in more than 120 nations, cites three main challenges today in finding solutions for the world’s refugees. Those solutions have traditionally focused on 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.

The first major challenge cited by Guterres is the increasingly protracted nature of many modern conflicts, some of which have dragged on for years or even decades. And as they drag on, so too does the time spent in exile for millions of refugees. In fact, more than half of the refugees for whom the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is responsible today have been in exile for more than five years. There are currently 25 of these so-called ‘protracted situations’ in 21 countries worldwide. For many, there is still no end in sight.

One distressing sign of the intractability of today’s conflicts is the fact that refugee repatriation is at a 20-year low. In 2009, some 250,000 refugees went home. While that may sound like a lot, it’s actually only one-quarter of the average annual return rate of the past decade.

Although agencies such as UNHCR can address some of the humanitarian needs of refugees living in long-term limbo, the underlying causes of these ongoing conflicts require a political solution. Without a resolution, the refugee numbers grow and the duration of their exile lengthens. Hope fades and refugees become desperate. At the same time, an increasingly disproportionate burden is placed on the many developing countries that already host four-fifths of the world’s refugees.

One way of easing that burden on less developed host countries is for more developed nations to take some of the most vulnerable refugees for resettlement. UNHCR has urged developed nations to help share the burden by increasing the number of resettlement places they can offer. But the 25 developed countries that now accept refugees for resettlement are still only able to provide places for about 10 per cent of the estimated 800,000 refugees who have been identified by UNHCR as needing such protection. And keep in mind that those 84,000 refugees resettled in 2009 still represent less than 1 percent of all refugees cared for by UNHCR around the world.

The second challenge is the increasingly dangerous climate in which humanitarian actors must work today, or what UNHCR calls the “shrinking of humanitarian space”.

Today's conflicts can have many different actors, including some who have no respect for humanitarian principles or the safety of those trying to help the victims. These different armed groups can include national and possibly foreign armies, ethnic- or religious-based militias, insurgent groups and bandits. All of these actors have been responsible for serious human rights violations.

Providing humanitarian help in such an environment is both difficult and dangerous for aid workers, who are traditionally neutral and unarmed. In one six-month period in 2009, three UNHCR staff members were killed and another kidnapped. More recently, a UNHCR staff member was shot and killed in Sudan. In all, more than 40 UNHCR staff and associates involved in UNHCR operations have been killed in the line of duty, most of them in the past two decades. Humanitarians, whose objective is to help the innocent victims of conflict, are themselves increasingly becoming targets.

The third challenge is the erosion of the institution of asylum. This is particularly of concern in industrialized countries trying to cope with so-called “mixed movements” in which migrants, asylum-seekers, refugees and victims of trafficking travel alongside each other. These groups have different profiles and motivations for moving, and may thus have a very different status under international law. Migrants, especially economic migrants, choose to move in order to improve their lives. Refugees are forced to flee to save their lives or preserve their freedom.

Rwandan refugees who fled the country during the fighting are returning home.

Rwandan refugees who fled the country during the fighting are returning home.
UN Photo/John Isaac

Although moving for different reasons, migrants, asylum-seekers, refugees and other groups increasingly make use of the same routes and means of transport to get to an overseas destination. If people composing these mixed flows are unable to enter a particular state legally, they may employ the services of human smugglers and embark on dangerous sea or land voyages, which many do not survive.

UNHCR recognizes the sovereign right of governments to control their borders and ensure their national security, and many states have adopted measures aimed at preventing people without proper documents from entering their territory. However, if applied indiscriminately, those same measures can also create obstacles for refugees and asylum-seekers in genuine need of international protection. While refugees and asylum-seekers account for only a small proportion of the estimated 200 million people on the move in the world today, they are finding it ever more difficult to gain access to countries where they can seek protection.

Everyone is entitled to exercise their fundamental human rights under international law. Refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in an irregular situation are no exception to that rule. In reality, however, their rights are often violated. In places throughout the world, they are subjected to arbitrary and discriminatory treatment. In some of the world's most prosperous states, people, including women and children, who have arrived without the required papers can be held in detention for weeks or months on end even after they apply for asylum.

Even the fundamental human rights principle of non-refoulement – that people should not be returned to a country where their lives or liberty are at risk – is being tested. A recent rash of involuntary returns of people who may need international protection in regions across the globe testifies to the vulnerability of even this long-established legal norm.

Adding to the overall erosion of asylum are increasingly negative public attitudes in some countries toward foreigners, including refugees and asylum-seekers,. There has been a perceptible rise in racist and xenophobic acts in many nations, sometimes fuelled by politicians and the media.

Read more about asylum and migration