World Refugee Day

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World Refugee Day

Posted 15/06/2012 by Harriet Spinks

In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 2001, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution deciding that 20 June would be celebrated as World Refugee Day in order to increase awareness about the world’s growing number of refugees, asylum seekers and forcibly displaced people.

The numbers
When the Refugees Convention was first adopted in the 1950s there were an estimated 1.5 million refugees worldwide. By the time World Refugee Day was first celebrated in 2001, the total population of concern to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was estimated at 19.8 million, including 12 million refugees, 940 000 asylum seekers and 5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). The major country of origin for asylum seekers and refugees in 2001 was Afghanistan with Afghans comprising a third of the global refugee population.

By the end of 2010 the UNHCR estimated that there were 43.7 million people forcibly displaced due to conflict and persecution, including 15.4 million refugees, 27.5 million IDPs and 837 500 asylum seekers. Afghanistan remained the leading county of origin for refugees.

While the UNHCR estimates continue to grow, it is likely that these figures comprise only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the number of asylum seekers and refugees worldwide. Most asylum seekers do not make their way to industrialised countries to seek protection or lodge asylum claims. In fact the vast majority of asylum seekers and refugees are hosted in developing countries (usually in close proximity to the conflict zones), so the burden of assisting the world’s asylum seekers and refugees actually falls to some of the world’s poorest countries. According to UNHCR data, Pakistan is host to the largest number of refugees worldwide, mostly from Afghanistan. In comparison, the contribution by industrialised countries as hosts is very small—and Australia’s contribution is just a fraction of this.

The challenges
In State of the World’s Refugees 2000: fifty years of humanitarian action—marking the 50th anniversary of the Refugees Convention when World Refugee Day was first established—the UNHCR commented on the changing dynamics of displacement, the continuing lack of protection opportunities and the consequences for the world’s asylum seekers:

Goods and capital now circulate with greater ease than ever before, and business personnel, tourists and students constantly move across increasingly invisible borders. In contrast, governments are still determined to control unwanted movements of people. Stringent measures to keep out unauthorized entrants often prevent people in need of protection from reaching a country where they may seek safety... strict visa policies, carrier sanctions, readmission treaties and the like—push refugees desperate to escape persecution into the hands of human smugglers.
Ten years later—marking the 60th anniversary of the Refugees Convention—the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, appealed for a renewed global commitment towards helping the world’s most vulnerable people. In his appeal, António Guterres noted that some of the root causes of displacement of growing concern, such as climate change, did not exist when the UNHCR was created in 1950. However, he pointed out that while protection challenges globally are now very complex, they are just as demanding as they were in the post-war environment that prompted the establishment of the UNHCR. He warned that the world faces many protection challenges in the future:
We have many reasons to be proud, but we also have much more reason to be concerned with the challenges we face at the present moment, and recognizing that unfortunately the root causes of conflict and displacement are not being eliminated and the next few years will be as challenging as the past.
In a more recent speech to the Lowy Institute (during a visit to Australia in February 2012) António Guterres also commented on a ‘clear shrinking of humanitarian space’ and suggested there was a need for more ‘burden-sharing’ in our region, including Australia:
On the whole, more than 80 per cent of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries. Many of them show a generosity that is well beyond their own means. They do not have the capacity to manage this pressure on their own. Nor should they have to... Countries in the developed world can and must show more solidarity to help shoulder this burden... 
For UNHCR, the ultimate test of success is how far any arrangements are able to improve and expand the asylum space available to asylum-seekers and refugees in the region, including here in Australia. If protection space can be increased across the region, then asylum-seekers and refugees will be able to find greater levels of safety and security, other than through dangerous and exploitative boat journeys.
Collective responsibilities
When World Refugee Day was first established in 2001, the then UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, urged industrialised countries not to close their doors to asylum seekers or try to lessen their obligations to refugees, arguing ‘In any case, no wall will be high enough to prevent people from coming’. At the time, the UNHCR noted the considerable challenges for the future and the collective responsibilities for the world’s industrialised countries:
In a world where serious human rights abuses cannot always be prevented, it is important to ensure that those who have to flee are able to find safety... It is our collective responsibility now to learn from the lessons of the past in developing new mechanisms for responding effectively to the challenges of the future.
Today the UNHCR acknowledges that the ‘changing nature of forced displacement is testing the international humanitarian system, and indeed the international community as a whole, in unprecedented ways’. However, it urges nations to work cooperatively towards better meeting the protection needs of the world’s most vulnerable people through ‘more international solidarity, and a recommitment to the fundamental tenets of protection, to enable the international community to face the present and future realities of global displacement’.

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