The refugees won’t go home

What happens when a refugee is no longer temporary? What does it mean when 6.6 of the world’s citizens reside in no country? And what is the world to make of the 5.5 million people whose countries are in protracted conflict — meaning they won’t go home anytime soon? Those are among the questions raised ...

By , International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.
Reinnier KAZE/AFP/Getty Images
Reinnier KAZE/AFP/Getty Images
Reinnier KAZE/AFP/Getty Images

What happens when a refugee is no longer temporary? What does it mean when 6.6 of the world's citizens reside in no country? And what is the world to make of the 5.5 million people whose countries are in protracted conflict -- meaning they won't go home anytime soon? Those are among the questions raised by the United Nations' High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, in its Global Trends report released today. The main findings? The number of refugees returning home was the lowest it has been for two decades last year. Meanwhile, the number of forcibly displaced refugees hit its highest level since the 1990s -- a whopping 43.3 million.

In other words, it was a bad year for refugees -- the worst since the bad old days of the 1990s. Much of the unfortunate news comes from stories that are all too familiar: Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo. They've been bad before, but they're not getting better. Even more forgiving situations, such as in Iraq, are not attracting voluntary returns, as UNHCR calls them. And the number of people sent out into this growing abyss of refugeehood has grown each year.

It's a humbling inflection point.  In this Westaphalian world where the state is still the most important piece of international capital, we now have a world in which million of people are -- perhaps permanently -- stateless. How do we imagine their human rights, their legal status, and our negotiation with and about them? On top of the protracted situation in the Middle East, conflicts in Africa, Asia, and across the world are now producing people of no less conclusive status. UNHCR was meant to be a stop-gap mechanism until a better solution could be found. But we might soon reach a point where we can't keep up that story.

What happens when a refugee is no longer temporary? What does it mean when 6.6 of the world’s citizens reside in no country? And what is the world to make of the 5.5 million people whose countries are in protracted conflict — meaning they won’t go home anytime soon? Those are among the questions raised by the United Nations’ High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, in its Global Trends report released today. The main findings? The number of refugees returning home was the lowest it has been for two decades last year. Meanwhile, the number of forcibly displaced refugees hit its highest level since the 1990s — a whopping 43.3 million.

In other words, it was a bad year for refugees — the worst since the bad old days of the 1990s. Much of the unfortunate news comes from stories that are all too familiar: Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo. They’ve been bad before, but they’re not getting better. Even more forgiving situations, such as in Iraq, are not attracting voluntary returns, as UNHCR calls them. And the number of people sent out into this growing abyss of refugeehood has grown each year.

It’s a humbling inflection point.  In this Westaphalian world where the state is still the most important piece of international capital, we now have a world in which million of people are — perhaps permanently — stateless. How do we imagine their human rights, their legal status, and our negotiation with and about them? On top of the protracted situation in the Middle East, conflicts in Africa, Asia, and across the world are now producing people of no less conclusive status. UNHCR was meant to be a stop-gap mechanism until a better solution could be found. But we might soon reach a point where we can’t keep up that story.

Elizabeth Dickinson is International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Colombia.

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