Today is World Refugee Day - and the latest statistics from the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) show world refugee numbers are higher than at any time since 1994. As U.N. refugee chief Antonio Gutteres put it at a recent news conference: “Each time you blink, another person is forced to flee.”
UNHCR’s annual report shows that some 45.2 million people were uprooted by violence, persecution or rights abuses as of the end of last year, but the numbers also challenge some common misconceptions about refugees and displacement.
Here are 10 things you may not have known.
1. To be a refugee, you have to cross an international border.
Until you do, you’re just a person who’s been uprooted within your own country - or an internally displaced person (IDP), to use the aid world jargon.
The difference matters because it’s only by crossing a border that you gain the protection of international laws and conventions. It’s usually only then that UNHCR can swing into action, providing food, shelter and safety.
2. Most displaced people never cross a border.
For every refugee in the world, there are at least two IDPs. The Internal Displacement and Monitoring Centre estimates there were about 28.8 million IDPs at the end of 2012, compared with 15.4 million refugees. That’s the highest number in more than 20 years. The vast majority of IDPs - 10.4 million - are in sub-Saharan Africa.
Many of them lack any protections at all. Sometimes, they’re at the mercy of the very government or conflict that triggered their displacement in the first place.
Pressure is now mounting to give IDPs similar rights and protections as refugees. In December, an African Union treaty known as the Kampala Convention came into force, affirming the primary responsibility of states to look after their own IDPs. So far, only 17 of the African Union’s 54 member states have ratified this landmark convention.
3. Most refugees live and die in developing countries.
Contrary to the message pedalled by some populist media, Western countries aren’t awash with refugees and asylum seekers. More than 80 percent of refugees live in the developing world, and often in countries that can hardly afford to host them.
Pakistan is home to the largest number – 1.6 million – followed by Iran with 868,200. Germany is a notable exception to the rule, hosting 589,700. Otherwise, the world’s major host countries for refugees are Kenya, Syria, Ethiopia, Chad, Jordan, China and Turkey.
The United States, the world’s biggest economy, hosts just 262,000 refugees while France and Britain host 217,865 and 149,765, respectively. Japan, the world’s third-biggest economy, is home to only 2,581 refugees.
Worldwide, only 893,700 people submitted applications for asylum or refugee status in 2012. That’s less than 2 percent of the 45.2 million people who were considered refugees or IDPs last year.
4. Most refugees are not resettled.
If you’re a refugee, your long-term prospects are limited to three options: repatriation to the country you fled from, resettlement elsewhere or integration into your host society.
Contrary to popular perceptions, the vast majority of refugees are not resettled. Last year, less than 1 percent of the global refugee population benefited from this solution. Over the past decade, only 836,500 refugees were resettled worldwide.
That compares with 7.2 million refugees who returned to their countries of origin over the same 10-year period. Last year, 526,000 refugees were repatriated voluntarily, half of them to Afghanistan, Iraq or Ivory Coast.
5. Refugee status can last for generations.
There’s in fact a fourth long-term prospect for many refugees - prolonged limbo.
Some 6.4 million refugees worldwide are living in what the United Nations calls a “protracted refugee situation”. It defines such a situation as one in which 25,000 or more refugees of the same nationality have been in exile for five years or longer in a given asylum country.
There are Burundian refugees in Tanzania who fled violence in 1972. Somalis have been fleeing to Kenya since the early 1990s. Most Afghan refugees have been living in Pakistan for more than 30 years. And more than half of all Burmese refugees have lived in Thailand for more than 25 years.
The world’s biggest refugee camp, the sprawling Dadaab complex in northeastern Kenya, is more than 20 years old. Set up to house 90,000 Somalis after the fall of Mogadishu, today it is home to more than 500,000 people - a fifth of whom are third-generation refugees born in the camp.
6. Most refugees are never granted new citizenship.
One measure of successful integration into local host societies is whether or not refugees are eventually given citizenship. UNHCR figures show that only 801,000 refugees worldwide were granted passports by asylum countries over the past decade. That’s a tiny fraction of the global refugee population.
7. Many refugees have no nationality at all.
To be stateless is to be in the worst kind of limbo, deprived of the most basic rights and protections. At least 10 million people worldwide have no nationality at all, making them among the most invisible people on earth. Most countries don’t even bother trying to count or document them.
UNHCR is campaigning for countries to start identifying stateless populations so it can fulfil its mission in helping them. “Measuring statelessness is complicated because stateless people often live in precarious situations on the margins of society,” it said in its latest report.
8. Refugees can and do contribute economically and socially.
While it’s true that large refugee populations can compete with local people for scarce resources and services, they can also have a positive economic impact. Their presence can stimulate local markets, create jobs and open host regions to development.
Sometimes, refugees bring skills and knowledge that can be useful to local communities. In Guinea, refugees brought new agricultural techniques to bear on vacant land, introducing swamp land rice. In Nepal, refugees have introduced new ways to cultivate the cash crop cardamom.
9. Almost half of all refugees are children.
Last year, 46 percent of refugees worldwide were under the age of 18. That’s about the same as a year earlier but higher than a few years ago.
Alarmingly, many children have been separated from parents or guardians. In 2012, 21,300 individual asylum applications were made worldwide by kids on their own.
10. Slightly more refugees are men than women.
Last year, women and girls made up 48 percent of the global refugee population, according to UNHCR. This is a figure that hasn’t changed much over time. This seems to fly in the face of popular perceptions that in refugee crises men tend to stay behind while women and girls flee.
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