This publication provides a synthesis of UNHCR’s flagship publication, The State of the World’s Refugees: In Search of Solidarity. The book itself was produced during 2011-2012, and written from the perspective of UNHCR, drawing on experiences from the past seven years. It is divided into eight thematic chapters, which together reflect the state of the world’s refugees.

Growing numbers without state protection

First, the book describes growing numbers of people who lack the full protection of their state. At the start of 2011, tens of millions of people—including 33.9 million of concern to UNHCR—are therefore particularly vulnerable. Most are people at risk from armed conflicts and political violence in their communities and countries of origin: civilians in conflict, refugees, asylum-seekers, refugees in protracted displacement, and internally displaced people (IDPs). In recent years, IDPs have emerged as the largest group of people receiving UNHCR’s protection and assistance—as many as 14.7 million in 27* countries at the start of 2011, though the total number of IDPs from conflict could be as high as 27.5* million. UNHCR is also concerned with 10.5* million refugees, mainly from conflicts.

Additional populations of concern to UNHCR may be less affected by conflict, but live in similarly vulnerable situations without the full protection of their states. They include stateless people, refugees and displaced people in urban areas, and people displaced by natural disasters and environmental factors. As many as 12 million people may be stateless. Increasing numbers of refugees, IDPs, and returnees live in urban areas compared to camps. The number of people displaced by natural disasters has multiplied in recent years, exceeding the number displaced by conflict. Climate change could increase this number by many millions in decades ahead.

Global social and economic trends indicate that displacement will continue to grow in the next decade, exacerbated by population growth, urbanization, natural disasters, climate change, rising food prices and conflict over scarce resources.

International protection under pressure

Second, the book describes an international refugee protection system under considerable pressure from the growing numbers and categories of people in need of protection. The international refugee protection system, founded in 1951 on the principles of national responsibility and international solidarity, is required to provide protection and assistance to populations of concern, but also to address the evolving patterns of forced displacement. In particular, UNHCR and its humanitarian partners are under increasing pressure to meet protection needs in the world’s conflict zones, despite growing threats to the security of aid workers and constraints to accessing populations in need.

Pressure on the international protection system is compounded by threats to the institution of asylum and the declining availability of traditional solutions to refugee problems. People who seek asylum in another country face a widely varying protection environment, characterized by countries with divergent approaches, inconsistent practices, barriers to mixed migration and restrictions on rights. People who are displaced across borders owing to natural disasters and the effect of climate change face a potential legal protection gap, since they are not covered by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. At the same time, refugees are increasingly unlikely to find the traditional solutions to their problems, and some 7.2 million people are trapped in ‘protracted’ exile. The host countries, countries of origin and donor countries seem less able to work together to find solutions, with host countries resisting local integration and other countries offering too few resettlement places.

UNHCR’s innovative practices

Third, the book highlights new practices and approaches developed by UNHCR and partners, working with states, to respond to the world’s evolving forced displacement challenges:

  • To meet the needs of civilians in armed conflicts, UNHCR and its UN partners have shifted their approach from risk avoidance to ‘risk management’. This approach is focused on ‘how to stay’ instead of ‘when to leave’, and on promoting ‘acceptance’ among local communities.

  • To protect refugees within mixed migration movements, UNHCR and partners in 2006 developed a Ten-Point Plan on Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration. It is aimed at encouraging states to incorporate refugee protection into broader migration policies and to ensure that all migrants are treated with dignity.

  • To defend the institution of asylum and hold states accountable for respecting their obligations under the 1951 Convention, UNHCR has increasingly made submissions to national and regional courts in pursuit of more consistency in the application of asylum decisions.

  • To resolve protracted refugee situations, UNHCR has tried to adopt comprehensive strategies that involve all three traditional durable solutions—voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement.

  • To integrate refugees, returnees and IDPs into broader reconstruction and development planning in cases of voluntary repatriation and local integration, UNHCR and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) with the World Bank, in 2010 launched the Transitional Solutions Initiative.

  • To involve refugees’ own priorities in finding solutions to their problems, UNHCR has stated that ‘mobility’ can play an important role in achieving durable solutions for refugees, and has begun to explore the potential for migration channels to contribute to durable solutions.

  • To address statelessness, UNHCR has encouraged states to sign the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness and bring their nationality legislation into line with Convention standards.

  • To respond to the needs of refugees in urban areas, UNHCR in 2009 adopted a new Policy on Refugee Protection and Solutions in Urban Areas, and has begun recalibrating its operations towards urban areas and collecting evidence of good practices.

  • To improve the availability and quality of protection, UNHCR in 2011 organized a ministerial meeting aimed at strengthening both national responsibility and international solidarity with respect to refugees and stateless people. Over 100 states made concrete pledges on a wide range of refugee protection and statelessness issues.

The imperative of solidarity

Fourth, the book argues consistently that strengthened international solidarity is needed to address the world’s forced displacement challenges. Both state responsibility and international solidarity are essential to making the international protection regime function effectively, to addressing the world’s growing displacement problems, and to resolving tensions over the governance of international protection. Global solidarity, the principle by which global challenges are managed in a way that distributes costs and burdens fairly, is crucial when a few states host the majority of the world’s refugees due largely to their geographic proximity to conflict-affected states.

Solidarity is required from the main stakeholders in the international protection system. Above all, solidarity is required from states—including countries of origin and host countries—who must act responsibly to protect the rights of all people on their territories, and to fulfil their obligations to refugees, displaced people and stateless people. Solidarity is also required from the international community to support host states to shoulder their responsibilities effectively, through financial support, technical support, resettlement places, engagement in governance, and other contributions. Solidarity is also required from civil society organizations, communities and concerned individuals who shape the protection environment, and often make the most meaningful contributions to improving the state of the world’s refugees.

[Note: Figures marked with an asterisk (*) were corrected on 4 June 2012.]