Published in advance of World Refugee Day on 20 June, UNHCR’s Global Report 2009 notes that 2009 was a year characterized by a number of “mega-trends” that had an immediate impact on the organization’s ability to provide refugees and other people of concern with protection, assistance and solutions. These trends ranged from the ongoing economic and financial crisis, to population growth, to climate change and environmental degradation.
First and foremost, the global economic and financial crisis threatened the jobs and livelihoods of millions of people throughout the world, and at the same time had an adverse impact on international financial flows such as migrant remittances, development assistance and direct overseas investment.
Population growth continued apace in 2009. Currently there are approximately 6.7 billion people on earth; by 2050, that number is expected to surpass 9 billion, with almost all of the growth taking place in developing regions where the overwhelming majority of refugees and displaced people are to be found. Demographic expansion is inextricably linked to the phenomenon of rapid urbanization. More than 50 % of the world’s population is already found in cities and towns, and that proportion is expected to reach 70% by 2050. UNHCR warns that public services are failing to keep pace with this development. Linked to this, the issue of urban displacement has become a global phenomenon and a matter of growing concern for city authorities, governments, as well as humanitarian and development organizations. It is a process that has been fuelled by the movement of people who are struggling to live off the land and who are attracted by the better opportunities, goods and services that are perceived to be available in urban areas. Influxes of refugees and displaced people who have been obliged to abandon their homes by the threat of armed conflict, political violence, lawlessness and natural disasters have further compounded the phenomenon.
Climate change, global warming and environmental degradation threaten to displace growing numbers of people, and at the same time are placing serious new pressures on the limited disaster-response capacity of developing countries. While large-scale population movements provoked by natural disasters have hitherto taken place within the borders of such States, there is a growing risk that the victims of these catastrophes will look further afield for safety and security.
The challenge of food, water and energy insecurity, which received a high degree of international attention just two or three years ago, has not gone away, even if such issues now appear less prominently in the international headlines. Although world food prices dropped from their earlier peak, by the end of 2009, more than a billion people were threatened with starvation and hunger, especially in Africa. An even greater number of people, approximately 1.4 billion, lack safe water. Meanwhile, energy demand is expected to increase by some 50% in the next 20 years, most of it in the form of fossil fuels, a situation that will contribute to global warming. According to many analysts, the competition for scarce resources is playing an increasingly important role in provoking conflicts and human displacement, both within and between States.
More generally, the movement of people from one country and continent to another has continued to escalate. The world already has some 220 million international migrants, equivalent to the population of Brazil, the fifth most populous nation on earth; that figure seems certain to rise, even if States seek to obstruct or deter the arrival of foreign nationals.
Two-thirds of the world’s refugees are to be found in developing countries, many of them in an arc of conflict and crisis that stretches from South-West Asia through the Middle East to the Horn, Great Lakes and central regions of Africa. Almost three-quarters of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) assisted by UNHCR were to be found in this arc, as were the four largest IDP crises of 2009: the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
In 2009, new pressures were placed on the humanitarian space which is required for the exercise of UNHCR’s mandate. Armed conflicts were characterized by a proliferation of protagonists, including unruly armed forces and militia groups, which obstructed access to displaced and vulnerable populations; systematically expropriated their assets; or sought to manipulate and undermine the activities of humanitarian organizations.
Some 251,500 refugees voluntarily returned to their country of origin with UNHCR support in the course of the year, the lowest number in the last 20 years. Mass repatriation movements slowed as the security situations in Afghanistan, the DRC and Southern Sudan became less conducive to return and reintegration.
In 2009, UNHCR reinforced its recent efforts to address statelessness, a problem that restricts the rights and opportunities available to millions of people throughout the world. UNHCR worked with governments and civil society in a number of countries to survey and register stateless populations – an important first step towards providing them with long-term solutions. Increased information-sharing on nationality and documentation was undertaken in Cote d’Ivoire, while legal counselling was made available in the western Balkans, Iraq and Nepal. According to UNHCR estimates, some 2 million stateless people have been granted citizenship in the last two years.
Global Report 2009 is available online.
2009 Global Trends: Refugees, Asylum-seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons
Also in June, UNHCR launched a second report, entitled 2009 Global Trends: Refugees, Asylum-seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced and Stateless Persons. The report show that some 43.3 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide at the end of 2009, the highest number of people uprooted by conflict and persecution since the mid-1990s.
At the same time, according to the 2009 Global Trends report, the number of refugees voluntarily returning to their home countries has fallen to its lowest level in 20 years. UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres noted that “last year was not a good year for voluntary repatriation.”
The report also indicated that overall refugee numbers remained relatively stable at 15.2 million, two thirds of whom come under UNHCR’s mandate while the other third fall under the responsibility of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). More than half of the refugees under UNHCR’s care, or 5.5 million people, are in protracted situations.
2009 Global Trends is available online.