When I was 18, I left home for the first time. I remember it well, it was both exciting and daunting - but I wasn’t afraid; because I knew I would always have a home, a support network, and family to return to and rely on should I need them. For too many in our world, leaving home is not a choice but imperative to ensure freedom, well-being, or even survival. The latest, 2011, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) figures show 42.5 million people worldwide are in this position. This overall figure has exceeded 42 million for the fifth consecutive year and it reflects a series of complex and varied issues.
Poverty is not only one of the main causes but also a consequence of this displacement.
Of these 42.5 million forcibly displaced people, 26.4 million were internally displaced people (IDPs), 15.2 million became refugees and 895,000 were asylum- seekers. A refugee is someone fleeing their country who has crossed an international border. Often, displaced peoples who first arrive in a new country are classed as asylum-seekers until their individual case is decided upon and refugee status granted. Meanwhile, IDPs have not crossed an international border and remain displaced within their country of origin. IDPs may reason that it is better stay within familiar surroundings depending on the risk, but sometimes it is not possible to cross an international border- perhaps because of physical barriers such as mountains or rivers, or because other countries are unable or unwilling to accept refugees.
It is easy to see how displacement can lead to poverty and vulnerability. Most refugees leave with very little and what resources they do have tend not to last them very long. Without the protection of their state, many are left unsafe. These individuals are also more susceptible to abuse, exploitation and trafficking as they have few connections and resources to rely on. This is particularly the case for the 46% of refugees, who are children below the age of 18.
Having left everything they know, a majority (four fifths) of refugees find themselves in developing countries. Many head to neighbouring border countries, which are often the easiest to get to. Globally, Pakistan hosted more refugees than anywhere else. Some find themselves in cramped refugee camps, on perilous journeys across borders or even detention centres, where their options and rights are few. Food, education, medical care, housing and work opportunities are often severely limited and difficult to access. This is often the case even when refugees are safe in a host country. They may suffer additional language barriers and psychological trauma from what they have experienced at home.
Poverty may be a consequence of displacement but it is also one of the causes. Extreme poverty can lead to conflict over resources or power struggles due to a lack of opportunity, which can result in unstable environments. Those with few resources to begin with are also less likely to be able to cope with sudden climate change such as drought or severe flooding. This in turn can cause refugee movements.
A mixture of large scale violence, persecution, instability, extreme environmental conditions, extreme poverty and other human rights violations can also create refugees. For instance, in Yemen a mixture of violence, drought and poverty has created displacement. In Darfur, the impacts of attacks by militia have been exacerbated by poor rainfall and drought. And in Somalia, conflict led 300,000 Somalis to flee their homes in 2011 alone.
However action is being taken, both to prevent people becoming refugees and supporting those who find themselves with no other option but to escape. An array of organisations, including UNHCR, the Red Cross and MSF seek to tackle this injustice. Dealing with this issue is no doubt complex but tackling poverty has to be part of the picture. Fighting for some of the most vulnerable people on the planet, from circumstances not of their making, is important, just and a post WW2 promise we have to keep.
For these and more facts and figures see the 2011 UNHCR Global Trends Document
Image one:Saharawi refugee camp near Tindouf, Algeria by Martine Perret, UN Photo.
Image Two: Refugee camp, close to the border with Rwanda by Julien Harneis