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Resolve conflicts or face surge in life-long refugees worldwide, warns UNHCR Special Envoy

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Resolve conflicts or face surge in life-long refugees worldwide, warns UNHCR Special Envoy

20 June 2014

MAE HONG SON, Thailand, June 20 - The UN refugee agency's Special Envoy Angelina Jolie has called for urgent action to end the vicious cycle of violence and displacement as the world's displaced exceeds 50 million people for the first time since World War II.

She was speaking during a World Refugee Day visit to Myanmar refugees in northern Thailand, as UNHCR's latest Global Trends Report revealed that there are now an unprecedented 51.2 million refugees, internally displaced people and asylum-seekers worldwide. Global numbers of refugees increased by 6 million between the end of 2012 and the end of 2013.

"Preventing armed conflict should be a collective responsibility of the international community," Jolie said in Ban Mai Nai Soi camp in Mae Hong Son Province on Friday. "This staggering surge in refugee numbers shows that the world is failing to meet that responsibility. This is an unjust and unsustainable situation. The only answer is to devote greater efforts and resources to addressing conflict worldwide - there are no humanitarian solutions to political problems."

According to the UNHCR report, the main factors behind the dramatic surge in numbers were the escalation of conflicts in the Middle East, Central and West Africa, as well as the lack of solutions for existing refugees.

UNHCR's Special Envoy voiced concern over the deepening crisis in Syria and its spillover into Iraq, where a humanitarian emergency is unfolding as hundreds of thousands of people flee in the latest chapter in the decade-old war. Some could be displaced for the third time, having fled to Syria after 2003's sectarian violence in Iraq, been forced to return home last year as their safe haven became a battleground, only to be uprooted again by the recent unrest.

"For the past few years we have warned of a spillover and the huge consequences this could have on the region. Just a few months back I traveled to Lebanon where tensions along the border with Syria were high. While I was there, clashes took place across both sides. And now in Iraq, there are hundreds of thousands of people fleeing yet another potential battleground," said Jolie.

"Together, the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have become clear threats to the stability of the region, affecting global peace and security."

In parallel, resurgent violence in the Central African Republic and South Sudan is causing a hemorrhage of refugees into neighbouring countries, placing additional strain on an already volatile region and contributing to growing food insecurity.

"The number of refugees is growing faster than the world's ability to respond. Humanitarian aid can provide temporary relief but cannot fix the root causes of mass displacement," said the Special Envoy. "Now more than ever, the international community must not just show but also act on the political will to stop and prevent conflict."

The alternative, she warned, is a surge in the number of life-long refugees. "More than half of the refugees under UNHCR's care are already in protracted situations," she said. "On average, a refugee spends 17 years of his or her life in exile. That's 17 years in limbo, unable to go home or move on with life. Unless we succeed in resolving these current conflicts, we will see ever greater numbers of life-long refugees, requiring permanent support from the international community and posing a permanent risk to stability."

On Friday the Special Envoy visited one of the world's longest-running refugee situations on the Thailand-Myanmar border. An estimated 120,000 Myanmar refugees live in nine border camps in Thailand today, some for as long as 30 years.

Since 2005, a large-scale resettlement program has allowed 90,000 Myanmar refugees in these camps to restart their lives in countries such as the United States, Australia and Sweden. Those who remain are wondering if reforms in Myanmar could pave the way for return.

Meeting with the refugees in Ban Mai Nai Soi camp - the northernmost of nine camps - Jolie was told that they need to know more about the situation in Myanmar before they can make informed decisions on their next steps.

"After helping the refugees to survive in exile for three decades, the international community cannot fail them at this critical time," said the Special Envoy. She highlighted the need to equip the refugees with skills and education to embrace their future and to help Myanmar prepare for safe and sustainable returns when conditions are conducive.

"After 30 years in exile, the best solution we can give these refugees is the right and power to choose their own way forward," said Jolie. "This is our chance to get it right, to break the vicious cycle of conflict and displacement once and for all."

By the end of 2013, Afghans, Syrians and Somalis were the biggest refugee populations under UNHCR care. Of the top-three source countries for refugees, Afghanistan and Somalia have struggled with conflict for 35 and 23 years respectively, while Syria has entered its fourth year of fighting.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • Vivian Tan in Mae Hong Son, on mobile: +66 818 270 280