June 20 was observed as the International Refugees Day. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is a United Nations program with the mandate to protect refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people, and assist in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country.
According to the UNHCR, the population of forcibly displaced people grew substantially from 43.3 million (m) in 2009 to 70.8 million in 2018, reaching a record high. Most of this increase was between 2012 and 2015, driven mainly by the Syrian conflict. But conflicts in other areas also contributed to this rise, e.g., Iraq, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan, as well as the massive flow of Rohingya refugees from Buddhist Myanmar to Bangladesh at the end of 2017.
In 2018, 13.6 m people were newly displaced, including 2.8 m who sought protection abroad (as new asylum-seekers or newly registered refugees) and 10.8 m internally displaced people (IDPs), who were forced to flee but remained in their own countries. This means that on every day of 2018, an average of 37,000 people was newly displaced. According to data reported by UNHCR offices, over the course of 2018, some 5.4 m people became IDPs, having been forced to move within their countries due to conflict and violence.
What is so disturbing is the fact that the proportion of the world’s population who were displaced grew faster than the global population! Of these nearly 71 million forcibly displaced people, 41.3 million are IDPs (as a consequence of armed conflict, generalized violence and human rights violations), 25.9 m refugees (of these 20.4 m falls under UNHCR mandate, including 5.5 m Palestinians that are under the UNRWA) and 3.5 m asylum seekers.
During 2018, 1.1 m people were reported as new refugees, down from the 2.7 m reported in 2017. Syrians were the largest group of new refugees registered on a group or prima facie basis, accounting for more than half of new registrations mostly in Turkey. The conflict in South Sudan continued to displace many, with 179,200 new refugees registered in 2018. Refugees from DRC constituted the third largest group of new refugees with 123,400 people forcibly displaced across its borders in 2018. Most fled to Uganda (119,900).
The refugee population under UNHCR’s mandate has nearly doubled since 2012. In 2018, the increase was driven particularly by internal displacement in Ethiopia and asylum-seekers fleeing Venezuela.
Some 1.6 m Ethiopians made up the largest newly displaced population in 2018, 98 percent of them within their country. This increase more than doubled the existing internally displaced population in the country.
Syrians were the next largest newly displaced population, with 889,400 people during 2018. Of these, 632,700 were newly displaced/registered outside the country, while the remainder were internally displaced. Nigeria also had a high number of newly displaced people with 661,800, of which an estimated 581,800 were displaced within the country’s borders.
Turkey was the country of asylum that registered the largest number of new refugees in 2018 with 397,600 Syrians registered under the Government’s Temporary Protection Regulation. This was followed by Sudan which reported new refugees mainly from South Sudan (99,400) and Syria (81,700). Uganda also registered 160,600 new refugees in 2018, mainly from DRC (119,900).
The vast majority of newly displaced people remained close to home. For example, most Syrians fled to Turkey, where there were half a million new refugee registrations and asylum applications. Most of those forced to flee South Sudan went to Sudan or Uganda, and those displaced from DRC also headed to Uganda.
At the end of 2018, Syrians still made up the largest forcibly displaced population, with 13.0 m people living in displacement, including 6.7 m refugees, 6.2 m internally displaced people (IDPs) and 140,000 asylum-seekers. Colombians were the second largest group, with 8.0 m forcibly displaced, most of them (98 percent) inside their country at the end of 2018. A total of 5.4 m Congolese from DRC were also forcibly displaced, of whom 4,517,000 were IDPs and 854,000 were refugees or asylum-seekers. Other large displaced populations of IDPs, refugees or asylum-seekers at the end of 2018 were from Afghanistan (5.1 m), South Sudan (4.2 m), Somalia (3.7 m), Ethiopia (2.8 m), Sudan (2.7 m), Nigeria (2.5 m), Iraq (2.4 m) and Yemen (2.2 m).
As in 2017, over two-thirds of the world’s refugees come from just five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. As has been the case since 2014, the main country of origin for refugees in 2018 was Syria, with 6.7 m at the end of the year, an increase over the 6.3 m from a year earlier. The vast majority of these refugees (i.e., 85 percent) remained in countries in the region. Turkey continued to host the largest population of Syrian refugees, 3.6 m by the end of the year. Countries in the Middle East and North Africa with significant numbers of Syrian refugees included Lebanon (944,200), Jordan (676,300) and Iraq (252,500). Outside the region, countries with large Syrian refugee populations included Germany (532,100), Sweden (109,300) and Sudan (93,500).
Refugees from Afghanistan were the second largest group by country of origin, in what has remained a significant population since the 1980s. At the end of 2018, there were 2.7 m Afghan refugees, mainly in Pakistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran, who between them hosted 88 percent.
South Sudan remained the third most common country of origin and neighboring countries hosted almost all refugees originating from there. Of 2.3 m South Sudanese refugees most were in Sudan (852,100), followed by Uganda (788,800) Ethiopia (422,100), Kenya (115,200) and DRC (95,700).
The refugee population from Myanmar, the fourth largest population group by country of origin, remained stable at 1.1 m. Most refugees from Myanmar were hosted by Bangladesh (906,600). Other countries with sizable populations of refugees from Myanmar were Malaysia (114,200), Thailand (97,600) and India (18,800). India, under the fascist Hindutvadi BJP rule, has been very hostile to the plight of minorities, let alone Rohingya refugees from neighboring Myanmar. In recent years, under the pretext of updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC), it has been doggedly working towards making some 4 million Bengali-speaking (mostly Muslim) people in the state of Assam declared as non-citizens, which would surely compound the global problem of forced displacement of people multifold.
As has been the case since 2014, Turkey was the country hosting the largest refugee population, with 3.7 m at the end of 2018, up from 3.5 million in December 2017. More than 98 percent of the refugees in Turkey were from Syria with 3.6 m making up more than 98 percent of the entire refugee population.
At the end of 2018, Pakistan hosted the second largest refugee population with 1.4 m refugees, almost exclusively from Afghanistan. Uganda continued to host a large refugee population, numbering 1.2 m at the end of 2018. Uganda was host to refugee populations from several countries, the largest being from South Sudan (with 788,800 at the end of 2018). The refugee population in Sudan increased by about 19 percent over the course of 2018 to just over 1 m, with Sudan becoming the country with the fourth largest refugee population.
During 2018, the refugee population in Germany continued to increase, numbering 1,063,800 at the end of the year. More than half were from Syria (532,100), while other countries of origin included Iraq (136,500) and Afghanistan (126,000).
In recent years, western countries have been making much fuss about the migration issue, as if they are burdened with the task of hosting them. But the facts are quite the opposite!
Comparing the size of a refugee population with that of a host country can help us to measure the impact of hosting that population. According to the UNHCR statistics, Lebanon, while hosting the seventh largest refugee population, had the highest refugee population relative to the national population with 156 refugees per 1,000 national population. Similarly, Jordan hosted the tenth largest refugee population but the second largest relative to the national population with 72 refugees per 1,000. These figures relate only to the refugee population under UNHCR’s mandate, and Lebanon and Jordan respectively hosted an additional half a million and 2.2 m Palestine refugees under UNRWA’s mandate.
Turkey hosted the third largest refugee population relative to its national population with 45 refugees per 1,000. Half of the ten countries with the highest refugee population relative to the national population were in sub-Saharan Africa. In high-income countries, there are, on average, just 2.7 refugees per 1,000 national population, but this figure is more than doubled in middle- and low-income countries, with 5.8 refugees per 1,000.
Is there any solution to the growing refugees and IDPs problem in a foreseeable future?
Finding durable solutions to enable millions of displaced people around the world to rebuild their lives in dignity and safety will not be possible without identifying contributing and root causes of the problem. The UNHCR has established the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework as part of the Global Compact on Refugees (an agreement for shared responsibility between UNHCR, governments and other organizations) as a framework to address the issue. In recent decades, it has recognized the inadequacy of the traditional solutions – voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement in third countries. To address this need, the new Framework has included additional measures such as expanding access to resettlement, other complementary pathways, and proactively fostering good conditions for voluntary repatriation.
Resettlement in a new country that is neither the country of origin, nor the country of asylum, remains a life-saving tool to ensure the protection of those refugees most at risk. UNHCR estimated that 1.4 million refugees were in need of resettlement. However, only 81,300 places for new submissions were provided in 2018. The gap between needs and actual resettlement places continued to grow.
One durable solution is the local integration of refugees, a complex, gradual process in which refugees move towards permanent residence rights and, in many cases, citizenship in the country of asylum. Legal, economic, social, and cultural aspects of local integration are also part of the process.
There is an increased awareness of statelessness globally. It is to be noted that stateless people are not considered nationals under the law of any state. They may not be able to go to school, see a doctor, get a job, open a bank account, buy a house or even get married. They are also generally not counted or registered in the ways the rest of the population is, meaning their needs are not planned for and their existence not acknowledged. Identifying stateless people is the first step towards addressing the difficulties they face as well as enabling governments, UNHCR and others to prevent and reduce statelessness.
As I see it, while the efforts and measures of the UNHCR to alleviating the pains and sufferings of the displaced people are admirable, they fall short of addressing the core problems, which led to forced displacement. Unless the guilty parties, state and non-state actors, are tried and punished for their heinous crimes that forces displacement we won’t be able to arrest this menace. To put it succinctly, given the grim reality of our time that the major culprits within the state actors are either Veto-wielding powers or their client states, unless the world citizenry are serious in ensuring the authority of the International Criminal Court with sweeping powers to try and punish the criminals – big and small – we may never see a lessening of the ‘displaced’ people.