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United Nations Global Issues

Refugees

A peaceful and prosperous world is one in which people can feel safe and secure in their homes, with their families and in their communities.  It is a world in which they can feel confident in their country, their culture and in the family of nations and peoples on our common planet.

Sometimes, for economic or other personal reasons, people choose to leave their homes, to begin and new life in a new location.  For better or worse, these decisions are made as a matter of conscious choice.

children's shadows visible through tent with UNHCR logo

But when nature intervenes in the form of natural disasters people's homes are washed away, blown away, or shaken to the ground, uprooting entire communities.  When war or civil unrest ravages a community, masses or people are forcibly displaced or simply flee to protect life and limb.  At the extreme, they are left with only two options:  death by privation, assault or genocide, or life in exile.  One need only think of those forced to flee the violence in Darfur to glimpse the severity of their need.

This is the plight of the refugees and the internally displaced today.  In 2010, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
counted 43.3 million forcibly displaced people worldwide—the highest number since the mid-1990s. This included 27.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), 15.2 million refugees and 983,000 asylum-seekers. Of the 15.2 million refugees, 10.4 million were under UNHCR’s responsibility, and 4.7 million
were Palestinian refugees under the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

More than 26 million people—10.4 million refugees and 15.6 million IDPs— were receiving protection or assistance from UNHCR at the end of 2009, one million more than in 2008.

By 2010, UNHCR had identified some 6.6 million stateless persons in 60 countries. Yet it estimated that the overall number of stateless persons worldwide could be far higher, at around 12 million.

Unfortunately, conflict and natural disasters continue to take their toll on such persons.  But their lot is much, much better than it might have been, thanks to the commitment of the UN family to help them return to their homes, and to protect and sustain them until their return becomes possible.

When their homelessness results from conflict, UN peacekeepers are often there to protect the camps in which they must live.  When they are left without access to such basic necessities as food, water and sanitation, the UN family provides it.  When their health is endangered, the UN system sees to its protection.

Much of this support is provided through the United Nations humanitarian action machinery.  The Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), through its “cluster approach”, brings together all major humanitarian agencies, both within and outside the UN system, for coordinated action.  UNHCR is the lead agency with respect to the protection of refugees and the internally displaced.  With the International Organization for Migration (IOM), it is the lead agency for camp coordination and management. And it shares the lead with respect to emergency shelter with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

UN bodies actively involved in this cluster approach include the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO); the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA); the World Food Programme (WFP); the World Health Organization (WHO); and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has twice been the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize -- in 1954 and 1981.

“The problem of protracted refugee situations has reached enormous proportions. According to UNHCR's most recent statistics, some six million people (excluding the special case of more than four million Palestinian refugees) have now been living in exile for five years or longer. More than 30 [such] situations are to be found throughout the world, the vast majority of them in African and Asian countries which are struggling to meet the needs of their own citizens.”

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres
on “Enduring Exile”, December 2008

In addition, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), established in 1949, is the main provider of basic services — education, health, relief and social services — to more than 4.5 million registered Palestine refugees in the Middle East. That includes 1.3 million living in 58 refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the occupied Palestinian territory, comprising the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

UNRWA provides emergency humanitarian assistance to mitigate the effects of the ongoing crisis on the most vulnerable refugees in Gaza and the West Bank and was among the first to respond to the emergency needs of conflict-affected refugees in Lebanon after the fighting there July-August 2006.

As proclaimed by the General Assembly, World Refugee Day is observed annually on 20 June.