building a society for all ages

Second World Assembly on Ageing Madrid, Spain 8 -12 April 2002

No safety net for older migrants and refugees


Older Refugees
"Older refugees have been invisible for too long."
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata (1999)


Older refugees represent some 11.5 per cent of refugee populations and, in some cases, they may represent as much as 30 percent. The majority of older refugees are women.

These are people who have lost more than just family or belongings, and in interviews conducted by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), it is apparent that for many, there is no reason to live.

The figures tell little, however, of individual hardship and suffering. Typical is the case of an old man sitting alone, weeping, in a camp in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Clutching his few belongings and refusing to move, he seemed to have lost the will to live. Or the 86 year-old Kosovo Serb woman, living by herself in Pristina, who had been brutally beaten by three teenagers. The media, for the most part, do not cover the particular situations of older persons in need, and such images and stories are rarely known. But they are real, and so is the painful situation of so many older refugees.

Older refugees commonly encounter three main problems: social disintegration, negative social selection and chronic dependency.

· Social disintegration occurs when, due to economic decline, the formal or informal social support systems erode; or when war, flight or insecurity cause families to become separated and dispersed. In either case, the number of elderly persons in need increases.

· Negative social selection occurs when refugee camps and collection centres empty over a period of time. Those who are young, healthy and able-bodied are the first to depart, leaving behind the weak and the vulnerable. The plight of the elderly is particularly wretched. Often they have nowhere to go and no one to care for them.

· Chronic dependency can occur when solitary older persons, unable to secure state benefits or family support, become dependent on UNHCR for long periods of time. In this situation, UNHCR faces a particular challenge. At the same time that UNHCR is working to ensure that the older person's experience of exile is not deepened by poverty and destitution, it must also discourage chronic dependency - by helping them to regularize their status and obtain access to all possible benefits, entitlements and rights.

In 2000, to address these problems, the Standing Committee of UNHCR approved its Policy on Older Refugees. Based on the 1991 United Nations Principles for Older Persons, the policy stresses that older refugees should not be seen solely as passive recipients of assistance; on the contrary, they should be seen as a valuable resource with much to offer. These are people with a wealth of accumulated experience and knowledge, and they are well able to participate in decisions and activities that affect their own lives and those of their families and communities.

Older refugees often serve as formal and informal leaders of communities. They provide guidance and advice, and they transmit traditions, skills and crafts to other generations, thus preserving the culture of the dispossessed and displaced. They make active contributions to the well-being of their family members, and only become totally dependent in the final stages of frailty, disability and illness.

Older persons have taken the lead in returning to countries as far afield as Croatia and Liberia, and once back home they are often able to contribute to peace and reconciliation measures. Making full use of the capabilities and talents of older refugees and realizing their potential is an essential component of the programmes of UNHCR.

Although older refugees may have specific needs, UNHCR has found that they can best be assisted within overall protection and assistance programmes rather than through the establishment of separate services. For example, older refugees may need food that is easily digestible, but that need can better be met through appropriate planning within existing programmes.

The needs of older refugees are also met most effectively within the context of family and the community. Therefore the capacity of families and communities to meet their own needs and incorporate older people within them should be strengthened.

Older migrants
"Migrants... tend to be paid low wages, receive few or no benefits, and work without even minimal safety and health protection. ... Clearly, we must work together to ensure that migrants live in dignity and safety."
-United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan


They migrated from their homes, usually in the countryside, when they were younger, in search of new jobs and opportunities. But after spending years working in low-paying positions, many older migrants find themselves living anonymously in crowded apartments in growing cities, with little support from either their families or from the government.

According to available data, one in every 50 persons - some 150 million total - live permanently or temporarily outside their country of origin. This number includes 80 to 97 million workers and their dependants, some 14 million recognized refugees, and permanent immigrants.

According to estimates by the International Monetary Fund, migrant worker earnings sent back to home countries accounted for $77 billion in 1997, second only to world petroleum exports in international trade monetary flows.


Where the extended family network once helped older people in the rural community, older migrants find that these traditional social networks are non-existent, and there are few alternatives to replace them in the cities. The situation becomes critical, especially when the older migrant becomes ill or disabled.

The problems that older migrants face are generally the problems that most older poor people have, and efforts to assist the older poor will help migrants as well. These efforts include providing better access to social protection, designing measures to sustain
economic and health security, establishing community centres for older persons, and helping families share living spaces with older family members who are in need.

For older migrants who have moved to another country, the situation is different, often depending on how well they have integrated into their new country. As legal international migrants from earlier decades grow older, governments can assist them, for example, by extending social protection and ensuring pension rights. They can help them become part of their new communities by breaking down language barriers and ensuring that they receive services.

The situation of ageing migrants who perform illegal work is different since they fall outside the realm of social protection and have no access to pension schemes or adequate health services. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has identified the plight of these migrants as a significant cause for concern. The ILO is working to ensure that older migrants receive treatment equal to that of national workers, and that the rights that they have acquired are maintained after transfer of residence from one country to another.

This article was based on information provided by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

For further information, please contact:

UN Department of Public Information
Tel: (212) 963-0499
E-mail: mediainfo@un.org

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information DPI/2264 March 2002

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