Waiting to go home, by António Guterres

Analysis/Editorials, 15 June 2009

© UNHCR/H.Caux
Young girls and men queue separately for cooked rations in Jalala camp, Pakistan. The food has been donated by private citizens as well as the government.

GENEVA There are currently some 42 million victims of conflict and persecution worldwide living as refugees or uprooted within their own countries, many of them for years on end.

Among them are nearly 6 million refugees who have been in exile mostly in camps for five years or longer in what humanitarians call 'protracted refugee situations.' But these interminable refugee situations do not include the millions more uprooted people who are displaced within their own countries and who far outnumber the world's refugees. Many of them have also been unable to return home, sometimes for decades.

Although international law distinguishes between refugees and the internally displaced, such distinctions are absurd to those who have been forced from their homes and who have lost everything. Uprooted people are equally deserving of help whether they have crossed an international border or not. That is why UNHCR is working with other UN agencies to jointly provide the internally displaced with the help they need, just as we do for refugees. But we have a long way to go.

While they await a solution, both refugees and the internally displaced need food, shelter, medical care, sanitation, security, schools for their children and other essentials. Unfortunately, many of them are not getting what they need. UNHCR, which is almost totally dependent on voluntary funding, recently conducted a survey that showed alarming gaps in meeting even basic requirements.

In Cameroon, for example, refugees from the Central African Republic suffer a 17 percent prevalence of acute malnutrition among children, with mortality rates in some areas seven times higher than what is normally considered the emergency level. Less than a third of refugee girls are in school.

In Ecuador, many uprooted Colombians are totally unaware of their right to seek asylum, while thousands live in remote areas and are afraid to come forward. Indigenous people and single women and girls are prone to exploitation and abuse.

In Georgia, people who have been internally displaced for 15 years continue to live in squalid, overcrowded collective centers lacking insulation from the cold and functioning sewage systems.

In Thailand, more than 100,000 Myanmar refugees and asylum seekers have lived for years in crowded camps amid enormous frustration that leads to domestic violence and other abuses.

Poor host countries that can least afford it are paying the heaviest price. Despite alarmist reports by populist politicians and media of "floods" of asylum seekers in some industrialized countries, the reality is that 80 percent of the world's refugees are in developing nations, as are the vast majority of internally displaced people. As conflicts drag on with no political solutions, the pressure on many of these developing countries is nearing the breaking point. They need more international help. Without it, UNHCR and other aid agencies will be forced to continue making heartbreaking decisions on which necessities must be denied to uprooted families.

Our ability to provide help to those who need it most is also being severely tested by the shrinkage of the 'humanitarian space' in which we must work. The nature of conflict is changing, with a multiplicity of armed groups -- some of whom view humanitarians as legitimate targets. Two UNHCR staff members have been killed in Pakistan alone in the the past five months, most recently in the June 9 bombing of the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar. How do we meet the urgent needs of millions of uprooted people while ensuring the safety of our own staff? We are also facing a hardening of attitudes on state sovereignty, particularly in internal displacement situations.The distinctions between humanitarians and the military risk being blurred, especially in peacekeeping situations where there is no peace to keep.

The global economic crisis, gaping disparities between North and South, growing xenophobia, climate change, the relentless outbreak of new conflicts and the intractability of old ones all threaten to exacerbate this already massive displacement problem. Since the beginning of the year, millions more people have been displaced in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Somalia and elsewhere. We are struggling to cope.

June 20 is World Refugee Day, a good time to remember the 42 million uprooted people around the world who are still waiting to go home. They are among the most vulnerable people on Earth and they must be a priority. The same international community that felt obligated to spend hundreds of billions rescuing financial systems should also feel an obligation to rescue people in such desperate need.

António Guterres is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.