Few topics are more inflammatory than
immigration. Refugees and illegal migrants are the stuff of nightmares in the
US, the UK, western Europe and Australia. Fringe politicians are stoking fears
of invasions and complaining about the burden of caring for hordes of refugees.

What few people in those countries
appreciate is how lopsided that burden is. This week the United Nations refugee
agency (UNHCR) released its 2010 report on global trends. It shows that four-fifths
of the world’s refugees reside in developing countries. For example, about 1
million Libyans have fled to neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt because of the
civil war in their country – but less than two percent of them have reached
Europe. The flood is spreading east and west, but not north.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees,
Antonio Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal, is scathing about the
imbalance:

“If you take
individual asylum claims, 850,000 last year, the biggest country that received
those asylum claims was South Africa. More than three times what has been
received in countries like the United States or France. So indeed it is the
developing world that is giving a stronger contribution to refugee protection
and this should be recognised in the developed world with more opportunities
for resettlement of people that have special needs of protection, but also with
stronger support for those countries that are making huge sacrifices towards
refugees and to grant them the protection they need.”

Some of the world’s poorest countries are
hosting huge refugee populations, both in absolute terms and in relation to the
size of their economies. Pakistan, Iran, and Syria have the world’s largest
refugee populations at 1.9 million, 1.1 million, and 1 million. The US and the UK rank ninth and tenth with only 265,000 and 238,000 refugees.

The stress on developing economies is
enormous. As a metric, the UN uses the ratio of refugees to per capita GDP in
US dollars. By this measure, Pakistan is hardest hit, with 710 refugees for
each dollar of its per capita GDP, followed by the Democratic Republic of the
Congo and Kenya with 475 and 247 refugees respectively. By comparison Germany, the industrialized
country with the largest refugee population (594,000 people), has 17 refugees
for each dollar of per capita GDP.

2011 marks the 60th anniversary of the 1951
UN refugee convention. That was drawn up to deal with two million Europeans
uprooted by the cataclysm of World War II. Today about 44 million people are
displaced worldwide – roughly equalling the entire populations of Colombia or
South Korea, or of Scandinavia and Sri Lanka combined.

Within this total are 15.4 million refugees
(10.55 million under UNHCR’s care and 4.82 million registered with the UN
Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees), 27.5 million people displaced
internally by conflict, and nearly 850,000 asylum-seekers, nearly one fifth of
them in South Africa alone. The report does not cover displacement seen during
2011, including from Libya, Côte d’Ivoire, and Syria.

“In today’s world there are worrying
misperceptions about refugee movements and the international protection
paradigm,” says Guterres. “Fears about supposed floods of refugees in
industrialized countries are being vastly overblown or mistakenly conflated
with issues of migration.”

Furthermore, the refugee experience is
becoming increasingly drawn-out. The UNHCR defines a protracted refugee
situation as one in which a large number of people are stuck in exile for five
years or more. In 2010, of the refugees under UNHCR’s mandate, 7.2 million
people were in such a situation – more than at any time since 2001. Meanwhile
only 197,600 people were able to return home, the lowest number since 1990.

Some refugees have been in exile for more than
30 years. Afghans, who first fled the Soviet invasion in 1979, accounted for a
third of the world’s refugees in both 2001 and in 2010. Iraqis, Somalis,
Congolese (DRC) and Sudanese were also among the top 10 nationalities of
refugees at both the start and end of the decade.

Despite the low level of refugee returns
last year, the situation for people displaced within their own countries –
so-called Internally Displaced People – improved. In 2010, more than 2.9
million IDPs returned home in countries including Pakistan, the Democratic
Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Kyrgyzstan. Nonetheless even with these
return levels, at 27.5 million people the global number of internally displaced
was the highest in a decade.

A further but harder-to-quantify group that
UNHCR cares for is stateless people, or people lacking the basic safety-net of
a nationality. The number of countries reporting stateless populations has
increased steadily since 2004, but differences in definitions and methodologies
still prevent reliable measurement of the problem. In 2010, the reported number
of stateless people (3.5 million) was nearly half of that in 2009, but mainly
due to methodological changes in some countries that supply data. Unofficial
estimates put the global number closer to 12 million.

“One refugee without hope is too many,” says
Guterres. “The world is failing these people, leaving them to wait out the
instability back home and put their lives on hold indefinitely.”


Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.