Restructuring refuge and settlement: responding to the global dynamics of displacement.

Author:Turk, Volker
Position:Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (CARFMS

This was the keynote address at the 2012 Conference organized by the Canadian Association for Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (CARFMS), hosted by the Centre for Refugee Studies (CRS) at York University in Toronto.

It is a great pleasure for me to be here with you today. In the world of refugees and migration, Canada sets an important example globally in terms of its generosity towards the other, its multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious society, its long-standing and rich tradition of asylum as well as its global refugee policies. This tradition is exemplified not least in its annual resettlement programme and Canada's role as a major donor country to UNHCR. The High Commissioner, and UNHCR as an institution, deeply value and appreciate the contributions that the people of Canada, its lively civil society and successive governments have made over time to the protection of refugees and the internally displaced.

In this address I would like to share with you a number of reflections on the changing dynamics of displacement and possible ways forward--the challenging theme of this Conference.

But before doing so, I think it is important to set out briefly the factual background against which this discussion takes place.

At the end of 2010, there were roughly 16 million refugees and asylum-seekers, including 5 million Palestinian refugees. We have detailed population data on 3.5 million stateless around the world but know the overall population is several times larger which is why we continue to map stateless populations. Refugee voluntary repatriation movements in 2010 were the lowest in 20 years. Only 200,000 refugees chose to return home, against an annual average of over a million in the last two decades. The initial estimate for 2011 is slightly better, at some 530,000 returns. Some 26.4 million people were internally displaced, with 3.5 million people newly displaced during 2011. This is a modest decline in their number, down from 27.5 million in 2010. (1) Last year also saw the emergence of several new situations of internal displacement. In Cote d'Ivoire, violence following the November 2010 presidential elections forced an estimated half a million people to flee their homes. In Somalia, the worst drought in decades aggravated the country's chronic instability and led to one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of 2011. In Mali, the number of those displaced internally has reached almost 150,000 and, according to the Syrian Red Crescent, some 400 to 500 thousand are displaced inside Syria.

In the industrialized world, the year 2011 also witnessed a 20 per cent increase in new asylum applications compared to 2010. However, the increases were not evenly distributed and were evident mainly in the eight Southern European countries, North America as well as Japan and South Korea. For their part, the Nordic countries as well as Australia witnessed a decrease. The USA was the largest single recipient of new asylum applications among industrialized countries, followed by France, Germany, Italy and Sweden. UNHCR conducted refugee status determination in 67 countries, including many countries that are party to the 1951 Refugee Convention, and registered some 80,050 individual applications in 2011. This corresponds to 11 per cent of the global total. It is not surprising that the majority of asylum applications in the industrialized world are lodged by people seeking international protection from war-torn countries or those emerging from conflict, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Cote d'Ivoire, Libya, Syria and Somalia.

These figures reflect the various developments the world witnessed last year, such as the paradigm shift taking place in North Africa and the Middle East. Yet the figures in the industrialized world need to be juxtaposed with the numbers in some of the main refugee receiving countries in the developing world, notably Kenya, Ethiopia but also Liberia, Niger and other West African countries, plus Mauritania, owing to last year's crises in Somalia, Cote d'Ivoire, and this year's events in Mali, respectively. At the peak of the Somalia crisis last year, for example, several thousand Somalis fled to Kenya and Ethiopia daily. Within a couple of weeks, Mauritania and Niger received some 80,000 refugees from Mali this year, which roughly represents the 20 per cent increase in asylum applications in the industrialized world last year. Tunisia hosted over 100,000 refugees from Libya alone in 2011, despite its own difficulties and political transition. Another interesting phenomenon is the increasing flows to middle income countries, such as Thailand, Malaysia, Turkey, South Africa and Ecuador. (2) We have also been encouraged by discussions with a range of states, including Australia, Belgium, Brazil and the UK to establish statelessness determination procedures to address the situation of people who otherwise end up in a protection void.

To get a full picture, this statistical overview needs to be seen in the broader context of conflict, migration and related developments which are increasingly intermingled with forced displacement issues. Compared to the estimated 7 billion world population [out of whom some 1 billion go hungry although this is not necessarily linked to movement], the estimated global migration figure for 2010 of approximately 214 million people (3) is surprising in that one would, I guess, have assumed a much larger portion of the world population would be on the more. Looking at the figure of international migrants from a comparative perspective, it has increased by some 59 million people over the last twenty years, (4) suggesting higher mobility, primarily for labour reasons. And although violent conflict has declined in the past two decades, one and a half billion people still lice in fragile or conflict-affected countries. Another important trend that I would like to flag at the outset is the increase in natural disasters within the last two decades. While in 1990 there were approximately 296 natural disasters recorded, this jumped to 428 in 2010, affecting an estimated 257 million people, (5) including 42 million displaced in 2010 purely as a result of sudden onset natural disasters. (6)

It is against this backdrop that I would like to explore with you three inter-related themes that I hope can be developed further during this Conference.


The first theme has to do with the atmosphere around refugee protection today, with asylum space and how to enlarge it. Increasingly we hear about "the Thirties" as an apt description of today's ills. I think it was IMF Head Christine Lagarde who evoked it a couple of months ago when talking about the world's financial crisis. While we need to treat historical comparisons with caution for obvious reasons, they nonetheless evoke an atmosphere, real or perceived, which resonates in today's world. This sort of deja vu has a lot to do with the uncertainties of the economic [and social] crisis, the high unemployment rates in many parts of the world, the stark and growing inequalities within and between societies, and the seemingly intractable challenges of this century which seem unparalleled in complexity and magnitude, such as environmental degradation, the effects of climate change, population growth or the proliferation of weapons of all types. While history does not repeat itself, we can draw lessons from the past to master the present and the future.

The "Thirties" has particular resonance in the refugee and statelessness domain, remembering how the sentiments prevailing in that decade made people stateless and both created refugees and denied them safety in some instances. Inequality, high unemployment and a sense of loss of control are a dangerous mix. They seem to bring out the shadow side of out human nature, in dealings between individuals and in politics. Inward-looking, protectionist and exclusionary tendencies are often the result, not just in the economic realm, leading to the marginalization of groups, the scapegoating of the other [and in particular what appears alien to us in the other] and in the case of refugees or stateless people [and migrants more generally] their stigmatization as those who cheat and "abuse" the system, or worse still, are described as criminals. Those on the margins of a society, including refugees, asylum-seekers and the stateless, are easy prey for the gutter press and populist politicians who are eager to play with fire. This phenomenon has already emerged in some countries where the public debate on asylum and migration policies has become so toxic as to preclude any reasonable or clear-headed dialogue. Could this be possible without the indifference of the majorities to the concerns and situation of the minorities?

As Tony Judt remarked before his untimely death in August 2010, "what we know of World War II--or the former Yugoslavia--illustrates the ease with which any society can descend into Hobbesian nightmares of unrestrained atrocity and violence. If we are going to build a better future, it must begin with a deeper appreciation of the ease with which even solidly-grounded liberal democracies can founder." (7) He then concludes by saying that "much of what is amiss in out world can best be captured in the language of classical political thought: we are intuitively familiar with issues of injustice, unfairness, inequality and immorality--we have just forgotten how to talk about them." (8)

We should not be drawn into a fatalistic mindset by the comparison with the past [implied in the "Thirties"]. The fact that parallels are being drawn with that critical point in time does not, of course, mean that there is any terrible or inevitable catastrophe ahead of us today. The course that global events will take in the coming decades will, to an overwhelming extent, be determined by the actions and directions that states--most of which are led by elected politicians--will take. This...

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