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Number of world’s refugees at 15-year high

The figures released by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) – to mark World Refugee Day make for grim reading.

The number of refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs) in the world today is at a 15-year high: some 43.7 million people.  Of this number, by far the majority are displaced within their own country; half of the total number are children.

With the “megatrends” of climate change, population growth, urbanisation, food price rises and water scarcity likely to further increase the overall toll of the number of people forced from their homes, urgent action is needed at all levels of the international system.

The scale of this challenge is hard to comprehend.  The language of international agencies, with talk of ‘displacement’, ‘IDPs’ and ‘non-refoulement’, a principle of international law that forbids the expulsion of a refugee into an area where the person might be again subjected to persecution, can cloud an appreciation of the wrenching experience of being forced from one’s home and into an uncertain future.

44 million displaced

It’s hard to convey the enormity of 44 million people who have left behind homes, possessions, livelihoods and — in some cases — lost loved ones in the process.

Displacement takes many forms.  There are those who leave their homes as a result of conflict and those who are forced to leave as a result of natural disasters, a number that will rise dramatically as the impact of climate change increases.

Indeed, another recent report finds that 90% of recent displacement has been climate-related.  Some will stay away from their homes for only a matter of days and weeks, while others will be forced away for years, or may never come back.

Across the world, Save the Children staff work to ensure that, in these situations, children are protected and that a sense of normality is returned to their lives.

Our efforts

From our child friendly spaces on the Libyan/Tunisian border to our programme in Dadaab, Kenya — the world’s largest refugee camp; from our recent work with newly displaced people in Sudan, to our operations in one of the longest-running refugee situations in the occupied Palestinian territory, we’re providing relief to — and advocating on behalf of — the world’s displaced children.

As the impact of climate change is felt more acutely, there’s much more that the international community should be doing.

Today’s report from UNHCR reminds us that — contrary to some of the reporting we read in the western media — it’s developing countries that overwhelmingly shoulder the burden of hosting displaced people.

While some talk of the need for ‘Fortress Europe’, we should remember that 80% of refugees are in developing countries — the largest number being in Pakistan.

Developed countries should be doing far more to support refugees, and should put a halt to the hostile rhetoric — and failure to meet international obligations – that we’ve regrettably seen in the wake of the upheavals in North Africa.

African solutions

Solutions to displacement don’t just lie with rich countries or with the international community.  In recent years, regional solutions to displacement have begun to come to the fore, most notably in the 2009 Kampala Convention on Internally Displaced Persons, agreed by the African Union.

This landmark treaty obliges states to respond to the specific needs of internally displaced people and recognises that both states and non-state actors have obligations to IDPs under International Humanitarian Law.

African states should move to ratify and implement the treaty as quickly as possible and the Convention could serve as a model for other regional groupings.

One of the ways donors and international agencies can provide much-needed support is by aiding the host communities who are often the first to offer assistance to displaced people, and who often bear a large burden themselves in doing so.


Often, the majority of displaced people move not into camps, but into the homes of relatives or complete strangers – often poor themselves – whose livelihoods are put under strain. It’s a reality often overlooked by international agencies and by the donors who support them.

There’s work to be done to improve the lives of displaced people at local, regional and international level.  And to stem the tide of increasing displacement, more efforts should be made to tackle root causes, for example by investing in conflict resolution and disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation efforts.

At the heart of efforts to assist displaced people should be a genuine commitment to addressing the needs and concerns of the people themselves.

Sixty years

Too often, solutions are politically-motivated rather than needs-based.  Too often, returns aren’t ‘free, voluntary and safe’, but are forced or coerced – pushing refugees or IDPs back into environments where they don’t feel secure.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of UNHCR, an organisation that was originally created on a temporary basis. On World Refugee Day, we should redouble our efforts to ensure that that there is no complacency around displacement and that a fundamental respect for human dignity is at the heart of international response.

Find out more about climate change, one of the megatrends increasing the number of displaced people around the world.

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