“Refugees have no choice, you do” was the central theme of World Refugee Day 2012, celebrated all around the world on 20 June. To draw attention to the life of a refugee and the difficult choices they have to make, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – the UN’s Refugee Agency – launched a new campaign, titled “Dilemmas.” The campaign explains the often horrific dilemmas refugees and internally displaced people are confronted with. For instance, a person threatened by conflict could decide to stay with the risk to lose his/her life or this person can decide to flee, but risk being kidnapped, raped or tortured.
The situation of the world refugees and displaced persons is becoming increasingly worrisome and complex. According to UNHCR’s recently released report “Global Trends 2011” forced displacement is affecting larger numbers of people around the world. More and more people are nowadays internally displaced (IDPs). Over the last five years, the annual level of forced displacement exceeded 42 million people, including approximately 16 million refugees and 26 million IDPs. Moreover, the situation of refugees and displaced persons is often protracted, meaning that they have to live in precarious situations for many years. UNHCR notes that 7.1 million of the 10.4 million refugees under is mandate have been living in exile for at least five years awaiting a solution. The report also finds that in 2011 alone, an additional 4.3 million people were forcefully displaced, of which 800,000 people could be counted as new refugees (fleeing their countries). This situation is expected to deteriorate in the years to come. For instance, since April 2012, more than 100,000 people have been forcefully displaced as a result of new outbreaks of violence in North Kivu (Democratic Republic of the Congo). Anotherexample is the situation in South Soudan, where in only three weeks time 35,000 refugees joined the 70,000 refugees already staying in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State.
In her message the Day, Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy of UNHCR, cautioned that “the world is producing displaced people faster than it is producing solutions to displacement.” She called on the international community to “rededicate itself to preventing conflict, addressing it when it erupts, and solving it more quickly, for that is the only way to create durable solutions for the refugees.”
Earlier this year, when UNHCR published its flagship report “The State of the World’s Refugees 2012: In Search for Solidarity,” the High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres also cautioned that the refugee situation is unsustainable and needs to be addressed. He spoke off the shrinking space for humanitarian intervention, while the need for humanitarian assistance is increasing, especially now displacement from conflict is becoming compounded by a combination of causes, including climate change, population growth, urbanization, food insecurity, water scarcity and resource competition. The State of the World’s Refugees 2012 finds for example that the situation of people that had to flee their homes around the world continues to deteriorate in the regions where conflicts endure. However, not only conflicts force people to go on the move. The report also shows that the number of people displaced by natural disasters has multiplied in recent years, exceeding the number of displaced people by conflict. UNHCR expects that climate change could increase this number by many millions in decades ahead. According to the report “Global Estimates 2011: People displaced by natural hazard-induced disasters the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) – which provides the latest figures on people internally displaced worldwide by natural disasters – 14.9 million people were internally displaced throughout the world due to natural disasters in 2011, mostly related to weather events such as floods and storms.
The problem with forced displacement as a result of climate change or natural disasters is that it is not yet recognized in any legal document or in international law. The UN Convention of 1951 on the Status of Refugees and its Protocol of 1967 do not recognize people that have to flee their homes and countries as a result of the above phenomena. At a side event of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), the UN High Commissioner made a plea for the humanitarian crisis in relation to sustainable development. He drew attention to the increasing number of migrants, refugees and internally displaced people that are no longer living in camps but in cities, stating that “more than 50% of those of concern to UNHCR are already living in cities among the urban poor, often in areas lacking the basic essential services.” Refugees International, an organization that advocates for lifesaving assistance and protection for displaced people notes that although the Rio+20 Conference “discusses the need for countries to better prepare for natural disasters, it fails to consider how disaster risk reduction interventions can prevent and mitigate displacement from these events.”
On World Refugee Day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon emphasized that “We must work together to mobilize the political will and leadership to prevent and end the conflicts that trigger refugee flows. [...] Despite budget constraints everywhere, we must not turn away from those in need. Refugees leave because they have no choice. We must choose to help.” A similar call was made by António Guterres at the launch of the aforementioned “The State of the World’s Refugees.” The international community must assist those countries most affected by internal displacement and guarantee respect for the human rights of all people, irrespective of the borders they are living in. Mr. Guterres further called upon developed countries to step away from their “fortress mentalities” towards asylum seekers and refugees; embrace the values of tolerance; fight the manifestation of xenophobia; and support the development of countries in conflict so that refugees can return home safely.
Many NGOs also mobilized around World Refugee Day. For instance, Amnesty International’s Sherif Elsayed-Ali shared his views on the millions of refugees waiting year after year for a solution to their plight. Earlier in the year, Amnesty International launched the campaign “When You Don’t Exist,” with the aim to increase respect for the protection of the rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in Europe.