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"Staggering increase" in people forced to flee home - U.N. protection chief

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 20 Jun 2014 08:00 GMT
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In a 2012 file photo, Sawssan Abdelwahab, who fled Idlib in Syria, walks with her children outside a refugee camp near the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern city of Yayladagi, Turkey. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra
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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More people are displaced today than at any time since World War Two, according to U.N. figures published on World Refugee Day.

Volker Türk, director of international protection at the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), speaks to Thomson Reuters Foundation about the need for Europe and the world to empathise and open its borders to refugees, the players benefitting from conflict and anarchy, and the benefits of refugees living in urban areas rather than in camps.

What do the figures in the Global Trends report show?

They show a staggering increase in people forcibly displaced as a result of violent conflict, human rights violations and persecution. It’s the first time in the post-Second World War period that we’ve seen the number exceed 50 million, so it tells us quite a lot about the current state of affairs in the world.

The number is equivalent to a middle-sized nation like Spain, with the additional complexity for us that they are spread all over the world and sometimes live in the most inhospitable parts of the earth. Last year was one of the most challenging because we have had concurrent crises.

Why are so many people fleeing their homes?

If we look at TV footage from Syria, Iraq, Central African Republic or South Sudan, we see there is scant regard for civilians in these conflicts, meaning at the same time utter disrespect for human rights law, utter disrespect for international humanitarian law - which is the law of war if you like. As a result, if people have a chance to flee they do. They sometimes don’t have time to pack their documents. Their life changes overnight, and they have to move because that’s the only way to save their lives.

It’s extremely important that people in Europe and elsewhere understand more about what it is to be a refugee. Anyone in Europe who were to go through a similar situation would be extremely grateful if there was another country opening its doors.

What should the international community do?

There needs to be clear recognition that creating conditions that force people to flee is unacceptable. There needs to be more robust engagement by political actors and states that have influence on warring parties to ensure they comply with international human rights and humanitarian law. And then there needs to be very hard political work to find a solution to these conflicts.

I also often ask myself who has an interest in a status quo that is anarchic? I wonder if there aren’t very strong economic interests also in the industrialised world. There are huge natural resources in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, for example, and I think some private individuals and companies are benefiting from the anarchy. When I was in Goma, in DRC, and Bangui (CAR), I saw private jets landing amidst chaos. I was told these were private traders who were still probably able to take out whatever they found there.

What should Europe do to help refugees?

The number of Syrian asylum applications lodged in industrialised countries (56,400 applications in 2013) compared to the 2.8 million Syrian refugees living in neighbouring countries shows very clearly there needs to be more solidarity on the part of Europe. We want more support on the resettlement of Syrian refugees, more humanitarian admissions for vulnerable Syrians and more help with family reunification where refugees have family in Europe – basically, an opening of the border rather than a tightening.

It’s clear to us that if we expect the countries around Syria to open their borders, we would also expect the same of countries that are not directly neighbouring Syria. There was a very sad case of a Syrian woman of more than 100 who had tried to reach Italy from Turkey only to be rescued at sea and taken to Greece. The only thing she wanted to do was see her children in Germany before she died and it required all kinds of interventions to make this possible. There are thousands of these stories. There needs to be a much more open attitude on all fronts.

Which refugees made an impression on you last year?

I met refugee women in a camp in Turkey who had started meeting up to address their problems and were empowering themselves as a result. This was not something they had done in Syria. We see very important changes taking place during displacement. In a way, refugees, particularly refugee women, could be the future agents of change. We know that gender equality and women’s empowerment is often the tool to achieve a lot more in terms of development. Women want their children to go to school, they want to make sure their children are healthy, they want to overcome some of the social structures that have had a very inhibiting effect on them.

At least one quarter of Syrian refugee households are headed by women who have to fend for themselves. They are suddenly thrown into a very different life in a new country where they develop forces within themselves that they perhaps weren’t aware they had, so there is an empowering effect. We believe that in any peace process it’s extremely important for women to be consulted about what they want and how they want to envision their future.

Who is taking care of the rising numbers of refugees?

Developing countries host 86 percent of the world’s refugees, compared to 70 percent 10 years ago. There has been a real shift. Lebanon has 4.5 million inhabitants and now 1 million Syrian refugees. You see refugees everywhere - in abandoned buildings, in garages, in self-made tents. It’s a very small country so they become very visible and you see their despair.

Is it a good thing that refugees increasingly live in urban settings rather than camps?

Lebanon doesn’t have a camp, so this 1 million live scattered wherever they can. We see this more and more in displacement crises and we actually think this is a good approach because camps become almost like centres for the administration of misery. We have a policy to move away from camps because we don’t want to create dependency. We want to work more on right-to-work and development issues around refugees because they are also a force for development and can make a huge contribution to countries.

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