Record numbers of refugees, says UNHCR | Globalization | DW | 20.06.2012
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Record numbers of refugees, says UNHCR

The United Nations Refugee Agency has released a damning report about the needs of refugees around the world. DW spoke to the Agency's Director of International Protection, Volker Turk about the trends.

Flüchtlinge aus Mali im Flüchtlingslager in Maingaize im Niger an der Grenze zu Mali, aufgenommen am 20.04.2012. In Scharen laufen die Malier vor Putschisten und Rebellen davon. Viele sind nach Niger geflohen - dabei kämpft das Land selbst mit einer verheerenden Dürre. Im Flüchtlingslager erzählen sie von den schrecklichen Dingen, die sie erlebt haben. (Zu dpa Flucht vor der Scharia: Malier suchen Schutz in der Dürre von Niger). Foto: Carola Frentzen

Flüchtlingslager im Niger

Ahead of World Refugee Day on Wednesday, the United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR has issued its report on global trends, revealing that 2011 saw the highest number of new refugees since 2000.

DW spoke with Volker Turk, Director of International Protection at the UNHCR, about the global refugee situation.

DW: What is the current situation globally for refugees?

Volker Turk: We have seen quite interesting trends comparing 2010 with 2011; we have about 800,000 people who've become refugees in 2011 - the largest number of new refugees in more than a decade. That's the result of a number of crises. Over the last year, in the context of the Arab Spring we have seen quite a number of new displacement situations and refugee situations as a result, but also the crises in the Horn of Africa and earlier this year in the Sahel zone in Mali have produced quite a number of new refugees, and added them on to the already quite significant number of forcibly displaced people around the world, which now stands at about 42.5 million.

How has the situation changed for refugees in the past 12 months?

Well, we have seen more emergencies that have arisen over the past year. We've seen the Libya conflict; we've seen the situation in the Horn of Africa; there's Somalia where you have an ongoing conflict plus drought which produced refugees fleeing into Kenya and Ethiopia - in fact, at one stage during the summer last year we had about 1,000 people coming daily into Kenya and Ethiopia, so you can imagine the numbers. If you compare this with the industrialized world, we have seen some increases, but compared to what we have seen in the developing world, there is absolutely no comparison. I mean, if you look at statistics in the industrialized world, there are about 20,000 more asylum applications there. That equates to what Niger and Burkina Faso faced within a couple of weeks in terms of new arrivals. So I think the comparisons are quite staggering.

What we have also seen is that old conflicts do not get resolved, and new conflicts erupt. So we have an ever increasing number of people in protracted displacement - and we cannot find solutions easily because the original conflicts are not being resolved. I mean, if you look at Afghanistan, if you look a the situation in Somalia, if you look at the situation in the two Sudans, but also at Iraq now for instance, you have ongoing displacement as a result of low-level conflicts.

You've talked about conflict, but what factor do things like drought and climate change play in people being displaced?

The immediate trigger for people being displaced is usually violence and conflict. But we are just launching a report at the Rio+20 summit that we did with the UN University, in which we did some in-depth interviews with a couple of refugees in the Horn of Africa and asked them how they have experienced climate change and environmental degradation. It is interesting that they have seen over the last 10 years significant changes in weather patterns, rainfall, increased drought, which made them move to more urban areas, so they actually moved into areas of conflict in some instances because they couldn't survive anymore in the areas where they previously lived. So it's not that climate change and environmental degradation are the immediate triggers, but they are compounding already existing vulnerabilities: people move into conflict areas as a result, and of course it's then conflict that produces refugee movements.

Are refugees high enough on the international agenda?

We wish refugee protection would be much higher on the agenda. It means that refugees are at risk, they flee circumstances of violence, of conflict, of persecution. We wish there would be more effort going into solutions, and quite frankly, if you look at the Sahel situation and our program there, and the Mali situation and refugee movement around there, they are only funded at about 13 percent of requirements. We hope that the whole refugee issue is put back on the agenda as an international issue that needs attention, that needs funding, that needs support also from individuals around the world, who show compassion and empathy toward refugees in their daily dealings.

Mr. Volker Turk, Head, UNHCR's Division of International Protection.

Volker Turk says that attitudes to refugees need to change

So what needs to be done on a grassroots level?

I think it's important that there's more understanding about who refugees are and that we understand where refugees are coming from. Unfortunately, there is too much negativity around refugee and asylum issues. There's a lot of racism and xenophobia around them as well, especially in this economic and financial crisis. But it is important that individuals understand where refugees are coming from - that they have absolutely no choice but to move, that they require our international solidarity, that they require our understanding and empathy. That's really what's important, and a lot is actually being done at the grassroots level in many countries around the world. We see that non-governmental actors accommodate refugees, they help them integrate, they help them go into the asylum process - through legal aid and other things - and that is very, very important and very much welcomed by all of us who work for refugees.

Are there places where the situation has improved and where you see some sort of hope?

The Libya situation was a huge issue last year, but you have seen a lot of the Libyan refugees who fled to Tunisia and Egypt, and who have now gone back. So there is, if you like, some improvement there. We have also seen quite some positive steps taken by governments, for instance in the context of Tunisia, to help refugees be resettled into third countries. We have also seen more returns - not enough, but more returns compared to previous years, about half a million refugees managed to return last year, including in Ivory Coast in West Africa. So we have seen some positive developments. We have also seen very positive developments on the statelessness front. We have seen a number of states trying to resolve statelessness issues, which is often at the center of displacement.

Interview: Jessie Wingard
Editor: Michael Lawton

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