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Environment

Ongoing conflicts push global refugee numbers higher

There are more than 40 million refugees around the world today - men, women and children fleeing civil wars, violence and unrest, according to a new UN report. Most are refugees in their own countries.

a boy in a refugee camp

Millions of refugees are children

A recent report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is sobering. At 43 million, the current number of refugees is at its highest level in 15 years. More people than ever are fleeing hot spots around the world, driven from their homes by violence, civil wars or ethnic conflicts.

For years now, the majority of refugees have come from Afghanistan, and less than one-third of the three million Afghans driven from their country want to return. The situation in the conflict-wracked region is simply too grim.

The situation in Iraq is similar. It has the second-highest number of refugees, almost 1.7 million living in exile.

In Africa, over 770,000 Somalis are living as refugees, and those numbers are swelling as hundreds of thousands more flee famine in the region.

Ongoing conflicts

The high number of refugees is primarily due to the prolonged conflicts going on around the world, according to the report. The list of conflicts, some decades old, continues to grow.

"We are seeing a multiplication of new crises since the beginning of the year, such as in Ivory Coast, Libya, Syria, Yemen," said UNHCR head Antonio Guterres, who presented the report in mid-June in Rome.

"At the same time it seems that old crises never end. Look at what's happening in Afghanistan, more than 20 years of fighting, in Somalia, again 20 years of fighting, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo," he added.

Presenting the report in Italy was a conscious choice, since Italy has been one of the main destinations for refugees from North Africa in recent months. Italian politicians have often talked about a "flood" or even a "tsunami" of refugees reaching Italian shores. But in reality only about 18,000 from Libya have reached the Italian island of Lampedusa since the beginning of the conflict.

At the same time, Egypt and Tunisia, Libya's neighbors, have accepted more than one million refugees from Libya.

Afghan child and women refugees

Three million Afghan refugees have fled their violence-wracked country

Bearing the burden

In fact, according to the UNHCR report, four out of five refugees today live in developing countries. The great majority of them have not made their way to the industrialized world.

"The truth is that it if there is a burden, and I don't like to use that word, but if there is an exercise of responsibility in refugee protection, it is essentially assumed by the countries in the developing world," Guterres said.

Pakistan is one example. The country, rocked by political instability and mired in deep poverty, has taken on almost two million refugees. Most are Afghans who have made their way across the border and have often lived for years in refugee camps, uncertain if they will ever be able to return home.

In Africa, Kenya has for years had its borders open to refugees from neighboring countries. The current famine situation in the Horn of Africa is driving 1,000 to 2,000 refugees per day from Somalia and Ethiopia into overcrowded refugee camps in northern Kenya. That is despite the fact that Kenya itself has enormous problems with its own internal refugees, also on the run from drought and famine.

graphic showing refugee flows in 2010

Refugee numbers are at their highest levels in 15 years

In west Africa, the ongoing conflict in Ivory Coast has sent more than 180,000 refugees over the border into Liberia, which is also recovering from years of civil war. Many Ivorians have been taken into private homes, according to the UN. Most of them have no idea when the situation might allow them to go back.

For the approximately 27.5 million so-called internal refugees, whose who have been displaced in their own countries by war, violence or environmental catastrophes, the situation is somewhat more positive. Around 2.9 million of these Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) were able to return to their places of origins and take up their lives again.

Most of these were Pakistani or Congolese refugees, although large numbers in Uganda and in Kyrgyzstan were also able to return to regions they had been forced to flee. Still, the overall number of IDPs - 27.5 million – is higher than it has been in a decade.

60 th anniversary of Refugee Convention

This month marks the 60th year of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which defined a refugee as any person who "owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country."

The convention, which was approved at a Geneva conference on July 28, 1951, is binding for the 144 states which have ratified it. It states that refugees cannot be sent back to countries where their lives are endangered. It also guarantees certain rights, such as the right to safety, freedom of thought and religion and protection from torture.

Refugees are also supposed to have access to medical care, education and the labor market in the receiving country.

However, most of the refugees today do not even fall under the convention's guidelines, since the convention covers only people who have crossed international borders. Individual states are responsible for internal refugees, but these governments are often unable, or unwilling, to provide protection for these groups.

Overloaded boat with African migrants

Many countries have restricted asylum laws to curb migration

Western attitudes

What happens when it is not possible for a refugee to go back? The UNHCR categorizes a refugee status of over five years as a "protracted situation" and tries to find long-term solutions. If a voluntary repatriation is not possible, it advocates resettlement in the receiving nation or asylum in a third country.

But according to the UN's Guterres, wealthier countries are showing little desire to take in refugees and their policies toward refugees have gotten stricter in recent years. Countries that could afford to take in people in need, are sending many away. He has called for rethinking western policies toward people in need.

"Because of more restrictive attitudes in relation to migration, because of security concerns, especially after 9/11, the truth is that borders are more often closed," he said. "Getting asylum in many parts of the developed world is also becoming more difficult. Even physical access to the territory is sometimes denied."

Since the first refugees began arriving in Lampedusa, Italian border patrols have been stepped up significantly and discussions have begun about sending the refugees to various countries in the EU, whose member states have widely different asylum laws on the books. There has been little enthusiasm about the idea from EU capitals.

That has led to criticism from refugee advocates, including German President Christian Wulff. He has called for the creation of a humane and uniform EU policy toward refugees.

"In a Europe which emphasizes peace, respect for the rule of law and democracy, it should go without saying that we show solidarity towards those who need protection," Wulff said.

Author: Helle Jeppesen / jam
Editor: Anke Rasper

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