The world is witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 59.5 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 20 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also 10 million stateless people, who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement.
An agency to help Refugees
People fleeing persecution and conflict have been granted asylum in foreign lands for thousands of years. The UN agency that helps refugees is UNHCR (also known as the UN Refugee Agency), which emerged in the wake of World War II to help Europeans displaced by that conflict.
UNHCR was established on December 14, 1950 by the UN General Assembly with a three-year mandate to complete its work and then disband. The following year, on July 28, the legal foundation of helping refugees and the basic statute guiding UNHCR's work, the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, was adopted. So instead of ending its work after three years, UNHCR has been working ever since to help refugees.
In the 1960s, the decolonization of Africa produced the first of that continent's numerous refugee crises needing UNHCR intervention. Over the following two decades, UNHCR had to help with displacement crises in Asia and Latin America. By the end of the century there were fresh refugee problems in Africa and, turning full circle, new waves of refugees in Europe from the series of wars in the Balkans.
In a world where 42,500 people are forcibly displaced every day as a result of conflict or persecution, the work of UNHCR is more important than ever before.
Crisis in the Middle East
Recently, UNHCR has been tested to its limits by an unprecedented refugee crisis that has impacted the entire Middle East region and Europe. As of mid-March 2016, 2.1 million Syrians were registered by UNHCR in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, 1.9 million Syrians were registered by the Government of Turkey, and more than 28,000 were registered in North Africa. There have been almost 900,000 Syrian asylum applications in Europe from 2011 to 2015. This figure is, however, only slightly more than 10% of the total of those who have fled the conflict.
As the conflict in Syria enters its fifth year, a political solution is still to be found. Humanitarian needs in Syria have increased significantly since the beginning of the crisis, with 12.2 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, including more than 5.6 million children. Over 220,000 people have been killed and more than 1 million injured since 2010.
Many Syrians have been forced to leave their homes, often multiple times, making Syria the largest displacement crisis in the world with 7.6 million people internally displaced and almost 4 million people registered as refugees in neighboring countries. An estimated 4.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in hard-to-reach areas and besieged locations.
Palestine refugees are particularly vulnerable with an estimated 460,000 people receiving regular assistance around Syria. School attendance has dropped by more than 50 per cent and roughly one-quarter of schools have been damaged, destroyed or are used as collective shelters. More than half of Syria's hospitals have been destroyed or badly damaged. Water supply has decreased to less than 50 per cent of its pre-crisis levels. An estimated 9.8 million people are considered food insecure and many more are living in poverty.
UNHCR in the field
The UN Refugee Agency has its Headquarters in Geneva, but about 89 per cent of staff are in the field. Today, a staff of more than 9,700 people in 126 countries provides protection and assistance to nearly 59 million refugees, returnees, internally displaced and stateless people. The largest portion of UNHCR staff are based in countries in Asia and Africa, the continents that both host and generate the most refugees and internally displaced people. Many are in isolated locations where staff work in difficult - and often dangerous - conditions. Among the biggest UNHCR operations are Afghanistan, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Pakistan, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq.
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 registered Palestine refugees in the Middle East. When the Agency began operations in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, some 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.
Support for refugee camps
UN peacekeepers are often there to protect the camps in which refugees must live. When they are left without access to such basic necessities as food, water, sanitation and health care, the UN family provides it. 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. Along 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.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has twice been the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize — in 1954 and 1981.
Climate change, natural disasters and displacement
In addition to persecution and conflict, in the 21st century, natural disaster (sometimes due to climate change) can also force people to seek refuge in other countries. Such 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.
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.
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 circumstances - conflict, natural disasters, and climate changepose enormous challenges for the international humanitarian community.
As proclaimed by the General Assembly, World Refugee Day is observed annually on 20 June.
The UN General Assembly will host a high-level meeting on 19 September 2016 to address large movements of refugees and migrants, with the aim of bringing countries together behind a more humane and coordinated approach.