Global Refugee Movement Reaches a High Mark

The face of this Syrian woman in a refugee camp reveals the danger, fear and uncertainty of her plight.
The face of this Syrian woman in a refugee camp reveals the danger, fear and uncertainty of her plight.

By Charlene Porter
IIP Staff Writer
Washington,
June 19,  2013

The number of refugees fleeing their homes reached an almost 20-year high in 2012, according to a report on global trends issued June 19 by the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR. More than 45.2 million people were displaced at the end of 2012, the highest level since 1994.

A U.S. State Department official in the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM) said the UNHCR findings represent an “unprecedented number of refugee crises.”

“In the last year, we’ve witnessed major outflows of refugees from Syria, Mali, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo,” said Simon Henshaw, PRM’s principal deputy assistant secretary.

Henshaw’s remarks and the UNHCR report were both released in recognition of World Refugee Day June 20, an occasion the United Nations has designated to pay tribute to the courage and determination of people who search for safety after being forced from their homes as a result of violence, war or environmental crisis.

In collaboration with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the international community, the United States plays a leading role, Henshaw said, in providing short-term humanitarian assistance for refugees and in offering resettlement opportunities when returning home becomes a lost option for refugee families.

The UNHCR report found that the 2012 refugee total was an almost 3 million increase from 2011. Among these millions, people are in varying circumstances. Some are refugees who have crossed an international border. Some are internally displaced while still in their homeland. Some seek asylum from some form of harm at home.

War is the predominant cause of this unprecedented level of refugee movement. About 55 percent of the total flee armed conflict in just five nations: Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan.

“These truly are alarming numbers,” said High Commissioner António Guterres. “They reflect individual suffering on a huge scale and they reflect the difficulties of the international community in preventing conflicts and promoting timely solutions for them.”

Afghanistan is the homeland of more refugees than any other single country, as it has been for more than 30 years of conflict. Almost 2.6 million refugees of 2012 are Afghan by birth.

The two-year-old conflict in Syria and the surging tide of refugees it has created — 1.6 million — have been the source of mounting international concern. The United States has responded with substantial assistance to meet the humanitarian needs of displaced Syrians who have found their way to Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt.

At the G8 summit in Northern Ireland, President Obama announced an additional commitment of $300 million to be devoted to food, shelter and medical care. Since 2011, the United States has donated $815 million to relieve suffering for the innocent Syrian victims of the conflict between the government and rebel forces.

The aid will be distributed for assistance in neighboring nations hosting refugees, but $128 million of the aid infusion announced June 17 will support the needs of people internally displaced in Syria. Increasing health and emergency capabilities and additional food aid are priorities, according to a White House fact sheet issued with the announcement.

Whether the internally displaced and the refugees from Syria are able to find their way home eventually is largely unknown right now, so no broad plans for resettlement are underway. By international protocol, UNHCR takes the lead in making those decisions, U.S. officials say.

At this point, PRM Deputy Director of Admissions Kelly Gauger says UNHCR has designated about 2,000 Syrians who may go into resettlement programs. In keeping with established patterns, she says, it’s likely about half of those would come to the United States.

The United States accepts more refugees for resettlement than any of the other 26 nations who do so worldwide, about 70,000 per year. Australia and Canada are the second and third in offering new homes for the homeless, accepting about 12,000 and 10,000 respectively, Gauger said.

Because of the special circumstances of the Iraq war, the United States created a special resettlement program for Iraqis who had worked with the American forces. About 86,000 have found homes in the United States since 2007.