Blog post by Patrick Wall, an independent consultant based in Geneva, Switzerland.
Today is World Refugee Day, the day on which the international community pauses to reflect on the scale of human displacement around the world and the effectiveness—or otherwise—of our collective response to it.
Each year, World Refugee Day also marks the publication of UNHCR’s ‘Global Trends‘ report and its headline figure of the number of displaced people around the world (sometimes referred to colloquially as ‘the number’). Although this figure is usually six months out of date when it is published (because the report is released in the second half of June but relates to the end of the previous year), the sudden displacement caused by the war in Ukraine has prompted UNHCR to release a more up-to-date figure as well: the Global Trends Report says that there were 89.3 million displaced people worldwide at the end of 2021, but UNHCR says that the figure had risen to more than 100 million by the end of May 2022.
The fact that this figure has doubled in the space of a decade is a shocking indictment on the international community’s inability in recent years to prevent and resolve conflict, address persecution and find solutions for those who have been displaced.
In seeking—justifiably—to bring attention to the unresolved challenge of displacement and the 100 million people directly impacted by it, you will likely see UNHCR speaking today about displaced people as being ‘forced to flee’. Its social media accounts will be heaving with the #ForcedToFlee hashtag. Whilst this might be understandable on social media, which favours digestible messages and deals very poorly with complexity, UNHCR seems to use the phrase in all contexts, including the Global Trends report itself and in an academic book it published earlier this year with Oxford University Press.
Readers of this blog will not need to be reminded, of course, that a person does not need to ‘flee’ their home country in order to be a refugee. What is required by Art 1 of the 1951 Convention, rather, is that they be
(a) outside their country of nationality (or habitual residence, in the case of stateless refugees); and
(b) unable or unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country, owing to a ‘well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion’.
This means that a person could have voluntarily left their country of nationality and subsequently become a refugee because of events that occurred after their departure. Many Ukrainians working or studying in the European Union at the start of this year, for example, would have become refugees by virtue of what happened in their homeland, even though they did not ‘flee’ it.
The language of ‘forced to flee’ also fails to give due regard to those who were born in exile. Knowing exactly how many people fall into this category worldwide is very difficult to calculate, though UNHCR has tried to estimate the number of ‘children born into refugee status’ since 2018 in the last two Global Trends reports. It estimates this year that ‘more than 1.5 million children were born into refugee life between 2018 and 2021, equivalent to some 380,000 children per year’, but acknowledges that challenges of data collection means that the figure is ‘based on several broad statistical assumptions’. (UNHCR has further explained its methodology for this estimation process here.)
Because of these challenges, UNHCR only produces estimates of the number of refugee children born in exile since 2018. The phenomenon is a much longer-term one than that, of course; we know, for example, that the Dadaab camps in Kenya house not only adults who were born there and have been refugees their whole lives, but also their children who were born in exile. For some families, that means three generations of refugees, only one of which was ‘forced to flee’.
The case study that gives perhaps the most accurate indication of the true scale of the number of people born in exile are the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. Statistical analysis here is aided by three key factors:
- The large-scale displacement in 2017 occurred (more or less) in one large wave, and there has not been large-scale displacement since that time (see Chart below);
- That wave was five years ago; and
- UNHCR’s demographic breakdown includes the 0-4 age group (which, by its nature, includes all children born in the last five years).
In view of these factors, we can assume (without being led too far into error) that the vast majority of Rohingya refugees aged 0-4 in Bangladesh were born there, and thus did not flee Myanmar.
According to data released alongside the 2021 Global Trends Report, there were 918,898 refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh at the end of 2021. This included 151,734 children under five years of age (74,275 females and 77,459 males). Children under five thus represent 16.5% of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh.
This means that, just five years after the mass displacement, more than 16.5% of the refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh were born there. (I say ‘more than’ because there will also be an unknown number of Rohingya refugees over the age of 5 who were born in Bangladesh to parents who were part of the 250,000-odd refugees who were already there at the time of the 2017 exodus.) As the Rohingya exile in Bangladesh becomes more protracted, the proportion of Rohingya refugees who have never lived in Myanmar (and so did not flee) will grow.
If one in every six Rohingya refugees in Myanmar was born into a refugee life just five years after the mass displacement, how many Syrian refugees have never been to Syria, 11 years after the outbreak of civil war? How many Afghan or South Sudanese or Somali refugees, generations after those displacement crises started? We might never be able to put an exact figure on it, but the number of refugees who never fled could already be in the tens of millions.
There is one further group of refugees in relation to whom we can be more precise. Of the 5,711,102 Palestinian refugees registered with UNRWA, 5,226,846 are under the age of 70, and thus never knew the home that they lost in 1948. That’s 92%.
Many of the world’s refugees were indeed ‘forced to flee’ their homes in circumstances that most of us cannot even imagine. But, especially on World Refugee Day, let us also remember the millions of refugee children—and adults—who have never known their homeland at all.
Patrick CJ Wall is an independent consultant based in Geneva, Switzerland. He has previously worked for the Australian Government and UNHCR. His current portfolio of work includes undertaking a review of the three Support Platforms established pursuant to the Global Compact on Refugees, and research that seeks to better understand the ways in which refugee-led initiatives contribute to refugee protection and solutions in the Asia-Pacific region, as well as the barriers that they face.
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