Syria's refugees join millions of others already in limbo.
- By Joshua E. KeatingJoshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
This week, the world’s eyes have turned to the Syria-Turkey border, where more than 7,000 Syrian refugees have fled the Assad regime’s crackdown and are now living in camps hastily assembled by the Turkish government. While the growing Syrian refugee crisis is undoubtedly grave and the media attention it has garnered is welcome, this situation joins a long list of unresolved refugee crises around the world, some of which have been festering for years.
There are at least 15.2 million refugees in the world today, according to the NGO Refugees International. While this number is lower than it has been in the past, the group warns that this is simply a reflection of the changing nature of the global refugee crisis. “The old paradigm of refugees in camps with agencies providing services in a self-contained environment is no longer the reality,” says Andrea Lari, Refugees International’s director of regional programs. Much more common today are internally displaced persons (IDPs) — refugees living in their own countries who must rely on their governments, rather than international organizations, for aid. There are more than 27.1 million IDPs in the world today.
Here’s a look at 10 of the world’s most serious ongoing refugee crises:
The numbers: There are up to half a million Colombian refugees overall: 175,000 live in Ecuador, and 120,000 to 200,000 live in Venezuela. There are also more than 4 million internally displaced persons within Colombia.*
The crisis: The Western Hemisphere’s most serious refugee crisis is also one of the world’s most overlooked because, as Lari puts it, “These people are not living in camps.” The majority of those who have fled the fighting between the Colombian government and FARC rebels, along with the ongoing drug violence over the last two decades, have taken refuge in towns and cities over the border or within Colombia itself, making it difficult for relief organizations to get an accurate count. The Panamanian government came under international criticism for attempting to forcibly repatriate thousands of Colombian refugees in the late 1990s.
*Numbers, unless otherwise indicated, were provided by Refugees International.
The numbers: More than 170,000 refugees from the Ivory Coast are living in other countries, the majority in Liberia. More than 300,000 are internally displaced.
The crisis: West Africa’s civil wars have made the region one of the world’s severest trouble spots for refugees. The most recent crisis this year, sparked by Ivory Coast’s post-election violence, sent hundreds of thousands of new refugees streaming across the border into neighboring countries to join earlier waves of displaced people in the region. Although violence has largely abated since the defeat of forces loyal to former President Laurent Gbagbo, many Ivoirians remain in refugee camps in Liberia because there is “still insufficient safety and no confidence for people to return to their country,” says Lari.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The numbers: Approximately 2 million people remain internally displaced in Congo, with around 450,000 living in neighboring countries.
The crisis: The 1994 Great Lakes refugee crisis, when up to 2 million Rwandans fleeing the genocide (or retribution from the genocide’s victims) crossed into Congo, was one of the most widely covered refugee crises of the modern era. Although media coverage has diminished, the Congo region still has one of the world’s highest concentrations of displaced people, as fighting between rebel factions and the government continues to roil. In the first half of 2011 alone, Human Rights Watch estimated that 380,000 Congolese civilians were displaced due to attacks by Uganda’s Lord’s Resistance Army.
The numbers: There are more than 200,000 asylum-seekers in South Africa, the majority of whom are from Zimbabwe.
The crisis: Economically booming South Africa is the continent’s primary destination for asylum-seekers. The country’s refugee population exploded after Zimbabwe’s 2008 post-election violence. As many of the Zimbabwean political refugees are highly skilled and educated, they are viewed as competition for jobs by many South Africans and have faced difficulties in gaining asylum. An extreme example of this backlash was the xenophobic rioting that killed dozens of Zimbabweans in South African townships, embarrassing the country in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup.
The numbers: There are at least 614,000 Somali registered refugees living worldwide, with many more likely unregistered. There are more than 1.4 million internally displaced persons in the country.
The crisis: The gravity of what Refugees International calls the “world’s worst humanitarian disaster” was underscored this week by reports that the world’s largest refugee camp, a sprawling desert tent city in Kenya called Daddab, is running out of space. More than 450,000 Somalis — roughly the population of Kansas City — are expected to live in Daddab, which is riven by violence and disease, by the end of the year.
The numbers: Sudan has the world’s highest population of internally displaced persons: 5 million. There are still 413,000 refugees abroad (275,000 from Darfur and 138,000 from Southern Sudan).
The crisis: More than 2 million refugees and IDPs have returned home to Southern Sudan since 2005, when a peace agreement was signed bringing an end to the country’s 21-year civil war. Southern Sudan is due to formally declare its independence, but renewed violence in the disputed Southern Kordofan region threatens to create more displaced persons. Thousands of refugees from Darfur remain abroad. Hostility against the refugees in neighboring Chad is reportedly rampant, and sexual assaults against Darfuri women are widespread.
The numbers: Around 4.8 million Palestinians, including descendants of those who fled during Israel’s War of Independence, are registered with the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).
The crisis: The Palestinians are generally considered the world’s largest and oldest refugee community. About one-third of these refugees live in dozens of UNRWA camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank. The rest live in cities and towns in their host countries. The question of the “right of return” for these refugees, the majority of whom weren’t born as of 1948, has become one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the Arab-Israeli peace process.
The numbers: Around 160,000 Iraqi refugees still live in countries throughout the Middle East. There are around half a million internally displaced persons within Iraq.
The crisis: Eight years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, hundreds of thousands still remain displaced by the conflict. The majority of the international refugees live in neighboring Jordan and Syria, though many are now reportedly returning home due to the Assad regime’s violent crackdown. The United States as also admitted more than 54,000 Iraqi refugees for resettlement, though this policy faces opposition from some U.S. lawmakers.
The numbers: 1.5 million Afghan refugees live in Pakistan with an additional 800,000 in Iran. There are more than 300,000 internally displaced persons within Afghanistan.
The crisis: The majority of Afghan refugees fled violence from the Taliban, but many have fled counterinsurgency operations by the NATO coalition. The problem is getting worse: A forthcoming study by Refugees International found than more than 80,000 Afghans have been newly displaced since December 2010. Pakistan, the main destination for Afghan refugees, also faces its own growing population of internally displaced people in its restive North Waziristan region.
The numbers: More than 150,000 Burmese refugees live in camps along the Thai border. Up to 1 million more unregistered refugees live in Thailand’s urban areas. There are thought to be around half a million displaced people within the country, though the true number is nearly impossible to know, given the ruling junta’s restrictions on media and NGO activity.
The crisis: Most Burmese displaced persons and refugees fled due to fighting between the Burmese military and ethnic militias. Many are also still displaced from 2008’s catastrophic Cyclone Nargis. Those who have fled to Thailand, largely unregistered and living in cities and rural villages, exemplify the changing nature of the global refugee crisis and the difficulties organizations will face in counting them and providing much-needed services.