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New Internationalist

The Facts. People On The Move

Issue 283

The Facts

When the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was set up in 1951, it had a projected lifespan of three years. After that it wouldn't be needed. Today, UNHCR's remit covers some 27.5 million people, with a budget of $1.28 billion. And 80% of the world's refugees have fled from one poor country to another.

United Nations definition of a refugee

'Someone who has left his or her own country or is unable to return to it owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.'

There are nearly twice as many refugees now as there were in 1984. The numbers of internally displaced persons (click on map for fullscale version) are double the numbers of refugees and continue to rise. Predictions suggest that we will see over 50 million people on the move by the year 2000.

Click here for a larger image...

Global numbers of 'people of concern' to UNHCR 1960-1994 in millions. WHY THEY LEAVE
Most refugees leave their homes not because they want to, but because they have to. There are of course some who leave for a better life, but these days they are unlikely to be counted as refugees and given leave to stay anywhere else.
There are five main reasons why people leave:
War - conflict both internal and external. When there is fighting, civilians suffer and can be made homeless, often having to leave everything behind them in their flight.
Environment - people are forced to flee from flood, fire or drought, sometimes natural and sometimes created by humans.
Politics - dictatorships and state repression threaten opposition groups, trade unions, certain nationalities and other bodies who do not agree with them.
Persecution - individual repression puts people in danger because of their race, religion, gender, or sexuality.
Economics - people leave their countries because they are poor and hope for a better life elsewhere.

Large numbers of refugees are concentrated in particular parts of the world; the Middle East, the countries of the former Soviet Union, and Africa. In 1995 there were over 7 million refugees from four countries: Palestine/Israel, Afghanistan, Rwanda and Bosnia.

Sudan has the highest number of internally displaced persons, followed by Turkey. The internally displaced, unlike refugees, have no protection under international law.


The numbers of those seeking asylum continue to increase. In 1983, some 100,000 people asked for asylum in Europe, North America, Australia and Japan. By 1992 this figure had risen to over 800,000. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to be recognized as a refugee, especially in Western Europe. In 1992, of the 272,000 individual applications considered, only 25,000 (9%) were granted refugee status, with 29,000 allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds.1
Refugees in relation to total population of asylum country (1995)3

* Refugees resettled and persons granted asylum 1975 - 1993

Most refugees want to go home. Some do, either because the situation has improved in their home country, or because their place of refuge has become more dangerous than the country from which they fled. Some are forced to leave by their host governments, despite a UN Convention which prohibits the forced repatriation of those who are acknowledged to be 'refugees'. Increasingly, even those who are said to go 'voluntarily' may be subject to pressure. Many live in a constant state of flux.
Voluntary and forced repatriation. Top 12 countries 1995 3


1 State of the World's Refugees (UNHCR) 1993.
2 UNHCR by numbers 1995.
3 World Refugee Surveys 1995 and 1996.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996 [image, unknown] NI Home Page[image, unknown] Issue 283 Contents

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This article was originally published in issue 283

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