Four-fifths of all refugees eke out a living in the developing world. The west must do more to carry its share of the burden.

People in wealthy western countries such as American Tea Party members agitated about rising prices, unemployment and house repossessions might pause to reflect that things could be worse: they could be refugees. For a multitude of reasons, among which the financial crisis is but one, there has never been a worse time to be a displaced person, economic migrant or asylum seeker.

Speaking this week at the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, Antonio Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), described the daunting dimensions of an accelerating global crisis that the international community has yet to fully understand, let alone provide a coherent response to. And contrary to the populist and racist perceptions peddled by Europe's far-right, many western countries are doing less, not more to help.

Imbalanced share of the burden

Four-fifths of all refugees eke out a living in the developing world, which carries a correspondingly disproportionate share of the burden, Guterres said. Comparing the number of refugees a country hosts with its per capita GDP shows that the 25 countries most affected by the refugee phenomenon are all in the developing world, including 14 least developed countries (LDCs).

Pakistan, subjected to harsh criticism in a recent White House report over its perceived failures as a partner in the “war on terror”, is the most heavily burdened state in the world, with 745 refugees, mostly Afghans, for every $1 in per capita GDP. In contrast, Germany, Europe's richest economy, has 17 refugees for every $1 of national income. Britain has seven.

Guterres, a lifelong socialist and former prime minister of Portugal who took over at the UNHCR in 2005, said in an interview that the organisation spent much of its time firefighting in the teeth of negative global trends. One was the growing intractability of conflicts that showed no sign of being resolved and the diminishing, increasingly dangerous “humanitarian space” in which the UN and aid workers were obliged to operate.

An arc of crisis

“There is an arc of crisis reaching from Pakistan and Afghanistan through the Middle East to Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Chad that produces two-thirds of the world's refugees,” Guterres said. These problem areas were increasingly linked. They became “breeding grounds” for terrorism. And all such problems were exacerbated, in turn, by global megatrends — population growth, urbanisation, food and energy insecurity, water scarcity and, particularly, climate change, he said.

In addition, local or regional crises, as in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo, had also become entrenched and were creating both quasi-permanent and global refugee populations. “In this arc, things are not getting better. Somalia is a total disaster. Yemen is getting worse,” he said.

Guterres said the number of refugees being resettled abroad was rising but the number of resettlement places on offer was inadequate — roughly 10 per cent of the 800,000 annual applicants. The total number of applicants has doubled since 2005. “Europe currently provides around 6,000 resettlement places a year or about 7.5 per cent of the total worldwide.” Asylum seekers faced similar obstacles while forced repatriation policies, as applied to Iraqis for example, sent an “unhelpful” signal to Syria and Jordan where the vast majority of Iraqi refugees was located, he said. Advances had been made. And the UNHCR did not dispute the right of countries to control their borders. “Overall, however, there is still no true European asylum system but a patchwork of different national ones, making the situation totally dysfunctional.”

Guterres also highlighted the plight of an estimated 27 million people forcibly displaced within their own countries, whether by conflict or natural disasters; the particular vulnerability of child refugees, preyed on by traffickers and smugglers; and the relatively new phenomenon of “global refugee populations” that are not located in one place but seek opportunity wherever they can find it. The most striking example was Somalia.

The plight of the Somalis

There were nearly 700,000 Somali refugees at the end of 2009, approximately half in Kenya and a quarter in Yemen. “But Somali refugees are everywhere, from Costa Rica to Nepal,” Guterres said. “I do not believe there is any group of refugees who are as systematically undesired, stigmatised and discriminated against as Somalis ... It is difficult to conceive a situation more abject than that of the Somali refugee.” Guterres made plain there were no instant solutions. But he said much more could be done, starting with a full-scale international debate about the scale and seriousness of the problem and how it links to key global challenges such as climate change, which he described a universal “accelerator” of negative trends.

In dealing with intractable conflicts, more “robust” peacekeeping and diplomatic interventions might be required, he suggested. Governments should improve access, curb the spread of cheap weapons, and provide better protection for humanitarian personnel. Closer co-operation on migrants between states of origin, transit and destination was needed.

Most importantly, perhaps, “a new deal on burden-sharing” between the developed and undeveloped world was required, he said — with renewed emphasis on prevention. “The international community is not good at prevention. But prevention is much cheaper in the long run.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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