More than their fair share

Michael Cook
24 June 2011
Reproduced with Permission

Few topics are more inflammatory than immigration. Refugees and illegal migrants are the stuff of nightmares in the US, the UK, western Europe and Australia. Fringe politicians are stoking fears of invasions and complaining about the burden of caring for hordes of refugees.

What few people in those countries appreciate is how lopsided that burden is. This week the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) released its 2010 report on global trends. It shows that four-fifths of the world's refugees reside in developing countries. For example, about 1 million Libyans have fled to neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt because of the civil war in their country - but less than two percent of them have reached Europe. The flood is spreading east and west, but not north.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal, is scathing about the imbalance:

"If you take individual asylum claims, 850,000 last year, the biggest country that received those asylum claims was South Africa. More than three times what has been received in countries like the United States or France. So indeed it is the developing world that is giving a stronger contribution to refugee protection and this should be recognised in the developed world with more opportunities for resettlement of people that have special needs of protection, but also with stronger support for those countries that are making huge sacrifices towards refugees and to grant them the protection they need."

Some of the world's poorest countries are hosting huge refugee populations, both in absolute terms and in relation to the size of their economies. Pakistan, Iran, and Syria have the world's largest refugee populations at 1.9 million, 1.1 million, and 1 million. The US and the UK rank ninth and tenth with only 265,000 and 238,000 refugees.

The stress on developing economies is enormous. As a metric, the UN uses the ratio of refugees to per capita GDP in US dollars. By this measure, Pakistan is hardest hit, with 710 refugees for each dollar of its per capita GDP, followed by the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Kenya with 475 and 247 refugees respectively. By comparison Germany, the industrialized country with the largest refugee population (594,000 people), has 17 refugees for each dollar of per capita GDP.

2011 marks the 60th anniversary of the 1951 UN refugee convention. That was drawn up to deal with two million Europeans uprooted by the cataclysm of World War II. Today about 44 million people are displaced worldwide - roughly equalling the entire populations of Colombia or South Korea, or of Scandinavia and Sri Lanka combined.

Within this total are 15.4 million refugees (10.55 million under UNHCR's care and 4.82 million registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees), 27.5 million people displaced internally by conflict, and nearly 850,000 asylum-seekers, nearly one fifth of them in South Africa alone. The report does not cover displacement seen during 2011, including from Libya, Côte d'Ivoire, and Syria.

"In today's world there are worrying misperceptions about refugee movements and the international protection paradigm," says Guterres. "Fears about supposed floods of refugees in industrialized countries are being vastly overblown or mistakenly conflated with issues of migration."

Furthermore, the refugee experience is becoming increasingly drawn-out. The UNHCR defines a protracted refugee situation as one in which a large number of people are stuck in exile for five years or more. In 2010, of the refugees under UNHCR's mandate, 7.2 million people were in such a situation - more than at any time since 2001. Meanwhile only 197,600 people were able to return home, the lowest number since 1990.

Some refugees have been in exile for more than 30 years. Afghans, who first fled the Soviet invasion in 1979, accounted for a third of the world's refugees in both 2001 and in 2010. Iraqis, Somalis, Congolese (DRC) and Sudanese were also among the top 10 nationalities of refugees at both the start and end of the decade.

Despite the low level of refugee returns last year, the situation for people displaced within their own countries - so-called Internally Displaced People - improved. In 2010, more than 2.9 million IDPs returned home in countries including Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Kyrgyzstan. Nonetheless even with these return levels, at 27.5 million people the global number of internally displaced was the highest in a decade.

A further but harder-to-quantify group that UNHCR cares for is stateless people, or people lacking the basic safety-net of a nationality. The number of countries reporting stateless populations has increased steadily since 2004, but differences in definitions and methodologies still prevent reliable measurement of the problem. In 2010, the reported number of stateless people (3.5 million) was nearly half of that in 2009, but mainly due to methodological changes in some countries that supply data. Unofficial estimates put the global number closer to 12 million.

"One refugee without hope is too many," says Guterres. "The world is failing these people, leaving them to wait out the instability back home and put their lives on hold indefinitely."