One Refugee Without Hope Is Too Many

July 20, 2011|By Russy D. Sumariwalla
Almost 150 years ago, the League of Nations’ first High Commissioner for Refugees came into being to help alleviate the problems of those people fleeing their country or fleeing trouble within their country. Unfortunately, this human tragedy has not disappeared at all. 

The latest tally by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which superseded the League of Nations’ entity, found 43.7 million “displaced” people worldwide – roughly the total population of South Korea. This includes 27.5 million people internally displaced by conflict; 15.4 million refugees; and 850,000 asylum seekers, with about one-fifth of asylum seekers in South Africa alone.


In an interview with Melissa Fleming, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Geneva, I discussed the current plight of refugees as conflicts continue. And though the agency is a caretaker for refugees, only a refugee himself can appreciate what it means to be in that situation. The same goes for an internally displaced person or an asylum seeker.


One wonders what would happen to these 43.7 million people if the UN refugee agency did not exist – particularly when you include 15,500 asylum applications by unaccompanied or separated children in this figure. Fortunately for them and for us, the UN agency does exist and works around the clock in more than 120 countries, looking after the well-being of these people.


This year, the refugee agency celebrates the 60th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. Article 1A(2) of the 1951 Convention defines a refugee as any person who “ …owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is unable or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him [or her]self of the protection of that country, or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his [or her] former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”


Traditional drivers of displacement, such as conflict and human rights abuse, are joined by extreme poverty, climate change, population growth, urbanization and resource insecurity to generate new trends and consistently high levels of involuntary displacement – according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Global Appeal 2011 report.


This does not even take into account the unintended consequences of the so-called Arab Spring, which has turned into Arab Summer, in North Africa and the Middle East. The situation has added huge burdens on the already overburdened agency and its humanitarian partners like the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent and other major international nongovernmental organizations.

As I write this, there is a continuing stream of Syrians fleeing over the Turkish border. I salute the Turkish government for its humane response. The situation is so fluid that it is hard to keep track of the day-by-day worsening condition in the region. Nobody knows what comes next.

So what does the UN refugee agency actually do? In its own words, over the past 60 years, it has been:


  • Protecting people fleeing persecution
  • Providing assistance to victims of conflict
  • Ensuring respect for human rights
  • Listening to voices of women and children
  • Defending the principle of asylum
  • Speaking out against refoulement[reversal or going back]
  • Securing a right to a nationality
  • Creating safe havens
  • Working in emergencies
  • Airlifting aid to isolated communities, and
  • Helping people go back to their homes

Perhaps the least known fact about the agency’s work is that 80 percent of the world’s refugees are being hosted by developing countries –  this during a time of rising antirefugee sentiment in many industrialized countries. The agency’s 2010 Global Trend report reveals a deep imbalance in international support for the world’s forcibly displaced people. Several of the poorest nations are hosting huge refugee populations, both in absolute terms and in relation to the size of their economies.


Which leads me to say the obvious: Wealthy nations should do more to address this huge burden carried by the developing countries, which have limited resources and even more limited capacities. This is an issue of fairness and balance that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Russy D. Sumariwalla is president of UNA-USA Southern Oregon.


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