Protracted refugee situations: Millions caught in limbo, with no solutions in sight
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Protracted refugee situations: Millions caught in limbo, with no solutions in sight

Refugees from Myanmar living in Bangladesh on the tidal mudflats of the Teknaf River which borders the two countries. UNHCR/J. PagonisWhile news of major refugee emergencies often dominate headlines, the plight of millions of people who have languished in exile for years -- and sometimes decades -- remains a low-profile high-risk situation with serious humanitarian and security implications.

The Story
While worldwide refugee numbers have fallen to their lowest level in 25 years, a larger percentage of asylum-seekers are spending a longer time in exile in an often-overlooked plight of subsistence living in a virtual state of limbo. "The majority of today's refugees have lived in exile for far too long, restricted to camps or eking out a meagre existence in urban centres throughout the developing world," says the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in its 2006 report on the state of the world's refugees.

Today, there are at least 33 so-called "protracted refugee situations" involving groups of 25,000 people or more who have been in exile for over five years. According to UNHCR data, altogether they account for 5.7 million of the world's 9.2 million refugees. Those figures do not include the world's oldest and largest protracted refugee situation, Palestinian refugees, who fall under the mandate of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

The vast majority of these exiles are to be found in the world's poorest and most unstable regions, often the result of neglect by regional and international actors amid declining donor support. Trapped in these forgotten situations, the refugees cannot return home because of continuing violence or persecution, while facing significant restrictions on their rights in the places of asylum. At the same time, UNHCR warns, their presence raises political and security concerns among host governments and other states in the region. As such, protracted refugee situations represent a significant challenge both to human rights and security.

The Context

  • Since the early 1990s, the international community has focused largely on refugee emergencies in high-profile areas such as the Balkans, the Great Lakes region of Africa and, more recently, Darfur ( Sudan ) and Chad . Yet more than 60 per cent of today's refugees are trapped in situations far from the international spotlight.
  • The root causes of long-standing refugee populations stem from the very states whose instability engenders chronic regional insecurity. Most of the refugees in these regions - be they Somalis, Sudanese, Burundians or Burmese - come from countries where conflict has persisted for years.
  • East and West Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East are all plagued by protracted refugee situations. Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest number, 17, involving 1.9 million refugees. The countries hosting the biggest groups are Guinea, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.
  • In Asia (China, Thailand, India and Nepal) there are five protracted situations and some 676,000 refugees. Europe has three major cases involving 510,000 refugees, primarily in the Balkans and Armenia.
  • Although the measure of at least 25,000 refugees in exile for five years is traditionally used to define such situations, UNHCR argues that other groups should not be excluded. For example, of the Rohingya who fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh 12 years ago, 20,000 still remain. Similarly, there are 19,000 Burundians in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 16,000 Somalis in Ethiopia, 15,000 Ethiopians in Sudan and 19,000 Rwandans in Uganda.
  • While today there are fewer refugees in protracted situations, the number of such situations has greatly increased. According to UNHCR, they are also spending longer periods in exile. It is estimated that in 2003 major refugee situations, protracted or not, averaged 17 years -- nearly twice as long as in 1993.

United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR):
Ron Redmond, Tel: +41 22 739 8502, E-mail: