Warning that “never-ending” conflicts are creating new semi-permanent refugee populations, a top United Nations official today called on governments to expand their efforts to ensure protection for the world’s 43 million forcibly displaced people.
High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres noted that over half of the refugees that the UN refugee agency, known as UNHCR, is responsible for today are stuck in protracted situations – more than 5.5 million. Most of them are in the developing world where four fifths of the world’s refugees reside.
Last year was the worst in two decades for the voluntary repatriation of refugees, with only about 250,000 returning home – about one quarter of the annual average over the past 10 years.
“There is a simple explanation for this. The changing nature and growing intractability of conflict make achieving and sustaining peace more difficult,” Mr. Guterres told the opening of the annual meeting of UNHCR’s governing Executive Committee in Geneva.
“As a result of never-ending conflicts, we are witnessing the creation of a number of quasi-permanent, global refugee populations, of which Afghans and Somalis are the most obvious,” he said.
“Afghan refugees are dispersed across 69 other countries – a third of all States in the world… [Meanwhile in Somalia] there seems no real prospect of peace… I do not believe there is any group of refugees as systematically undesired, stigmatized and discriminated against.”
The High Commissioner appealed to countries to broaden their support for those affected by such situations and the principles of international protection on which his agency’s work is based.
“We need to increase international solidarity and burden-sharing,” he said. “A better understanding and recognition by the international community of the efforts of host countries is absolutely necessary.”
One tangible and effective example of burden-sharing, he noted, is resettlement, which enables refugees who cannot find safety or a durable solution in their first country of asylum to take up residence in another country.
Since June 2008, 12 new countries have established resettlement programmes and the total number worldwide now stands at 24, with the United States, Australia, and Canada in the lead.
“But a huge gap remains between resettlement needs and resettlement capacity,” Mr. Guterres stated, noting that while as many as 800,000 refugees need resettlement, the number of places available annually is only around 10 per cent of that.
“Only with resettlement and voluntary return maximized, and a more equitable sharing of the responsibility for hosting refugees, can we hope to see more receptivity to local integration.”
Mr. Guterres also touched on the needs of other groups of forcibly displaced people beyond just refugees. These include people fleeing natural disasters, the 27 million people who today are displaced inside their own countries due to conflict, and the estimated 12 million people worldwide who are stuck in the legal limbo of statelessness.