UNHCR: 2009 “Worst Year” In Decades For Voluntary Repatriation

Ahead of World Refugee Day on June 20th, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released its 2009 Global Trends report, which reviews statistics concerning “persons of concern” to the UNHCR: refugees, Internally Displaced People (IDPs), returnees, asylum-seekers and stateless persons. At a press conference in Berlin, António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, spoke of a worrying trend in the rise of total numbers of displaced persons (from 42 million in 2008 to 43.3 million in 2009). With regards to voluntary repatriation – the process by which refugees return to their home countries once a conflict ends – Guterres said: “Conflicts that had appeared to be ending or were on the way to being resolved, such as in southern Sudan or in Iraq, are stagnating. As a result last year was not a good year for voluntary repatriation. In fact, it was the worst in twenty years.” Indeed, the Report notes that “the number of returned refugees (251,000) has continuously decreased since 2004, with 2009 being the lowest level in two decades.” 

Highlights of the 2009 Global Trends report:

  • 43.3 million people forcibly displaced (up from 42 million in 2008) – this is the highest number since the mid-nineties
  • Figures for refugees remained stable in 2009, at 15.2 million (10.4 million receiving protection or assistance from the UNHCR)
  • 27.1 million conflict-generated IDPs (from 26 million in 2008)
  • 15.6 of the 27.1 million IDPs are receiving protection or assistance from the UNHCR
  • UNHCR presented more than 128,000 refugees for resettlement consideration by States, the highest in 16 years
  • The number of refugees in a protracted situation remained high at over 5.5 million, spread across 21 countries
  • Developing countries hosted 8.3 million refugees, or 80% of the total refugee population under the protection of the UNHCR
  • Three countries hosted more than one million refugees in 2009: Pakistan (1.7 million), Iran (1.07 million) and Syria (1.05 million)
  • The two major countries of origin for refugees worldwide are Afghanistan (2.8 million) and Iraq (1.7 million)
  • The number of refugees living in urban areas outnumbered those in camps for the first time in 2007, and represents 58% of the refugee population in 2009

As with previous years, what is most astonishing is the fact that out of the total number of displaced persons across the world, only about half fall under the protection of the UNHCR. In 2009, the UNHCR was protecting 10.5 million refugees and 15.6 million IDPs – leaving 28 million displaced people worldwide who were not able to avail themselves of the protection of the UNHCR. (note: the numbers used in the UNHCR’s Global Trends report include 4.8 million Palestinian refugees, who fall under UNRWA’s specialized mandate.) In addition, the Global Trends report notes that, in 2009 “UNHCR estimated that some 12 million people were stateless, with the Office having reliable statistics for some 6.6 million of them.”

These staggering figures, however, do not reflect a failure of the UNHCR to fulfill its mandate. On the contrary, they once again demonstrate the need to overhaul the legal framework which governs the protection of refugees and displaced people.

The 1951 Refugee Convention – which is at the heart of this framework – created the UNHCR and its mandate, and has been supplemented by a 1967 additional Protocol, as well as various regional legal instruments, such as the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, or the 1984 Cartagena Declaration. In addition to this core framework, there are several other layers of law that are meant to protect the displaced, at the national, regional and international levels. Nevertheless, these instruments are obviously failing to cover tens of millions of people displaced by conflict and violence, who are falling between the cracks.

In 2010, the UNHCR budget is reaching a record $3 billion, while the needs continue to grow. It is imperative that policy-makers strengthen the architecture that governs the protection of people uprooted by conflict. The need to find solutions to the protracted issues of displacement which affect every part of the globe is compounded by the growing realization that additional resources will need to be made available for people displaced not by war or conflict, but by environmental disasters and climate change – both of which are categories of displaced persons for which no international legal instrument currently exists. The challenge of protecting people who have lost everything is a daunting one for the international community, but it must nevertheless be tackled with great urgency.