The Uprooted, an Invisible Nation as Big as Britain

Human Wrongs Watch

Geneva – Global forced displacement figures already stood at a 15-year high at the end of 2010, with 43.7 million people uprooted by conflict and persecution worldwide. Recent events indicate that this number is likely to rise again by the end of the year. The number of stateless people is estimated to be at least 12 million, according to UN.

In Search of Identity: an ailing 75-year-old Bihari sits alone in his room in a camp in Bangladesh | Credit: UN

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Antonio Guterres, called on the international community to assume its shared duty to protect and assist millions of forcibly displaced and stateless people around the world.

Guterres noted that “dramatic events have forced hundreds of thousands of people to seek refuge across borders in 2011. More than three quarters of a million people became refugees, following upheaval and conflict in Africa and the Middle East.”

Xenophobia Despite Half a Century of Conventions

In what was considered as “the largest-ever conference” on this issue, a two-day forum organised by UNHCR, brought together in Geneva on December 7 and 8, government officials from almost 150 countries and marked the 60th anniversary of the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and the 50th anniversary of the Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness.

Guterres warned that a succession of political crises and the global economic downturn were contributing to a significantly more challenging environment for protecting people who are forced to flee their homes. “Some people are playing on public uncertainty and anxiety to promote xenophobia.”

Populist Politicians and Media

Populist politicians and irresponsible elements of the media exploit feelings of fear and insecurity to scapegoat foreigners, try to force the adoption of restrictive policies, and actively spread racist and xenophobic sentiments,” said Guterres.

While States have the right to define their own immigration policies, they should do so in respect for human dignity and basic rights, he stated.

All this can be done, and needs to be done, in ways that ensure protection is granted to those who need it,” Guterres stressed. “This means guaranteeing their access to territory, fair treatment of their asylum claims, and adequate integration policies that contribute to social harmony.”

Four Challenges

Guterres highlighted four challenges to providing the kind of protection that the Refugee Convention aspired to:

–failures of States to live up to their treaty obligations;

–disproportionate burdens for developing countries, who host 80 per cent of the world’s refugees;

–the millions of refugees left stranded in protracted displacement limbo; and

–the complicating effects of factors such as population growth, and food and water insecurity. In addition, climate change was increasingly exacerbating other drivers of forced displacement, he said.

No Rights, No Health, No Jobs, No Housing, No Education…

Guterres called on states to look at ways to strengthen their own protection mechanisms for the displaced and stateless. He also announced his agency’s commitment to do more to fight sexual and gender-based violence, with a particular focus on women and girls.

Last August, the UN refugee agency launched a campaign to highlight the plight of up to 12 million stateless people worldwide “who are denied basic rights, including access to jobs, housing, education and health care by dint of their lack of citizenship.”

The stateless may also “not be able to own property, get married legally, or register the birth of a child. Some face long periods of detention because they cannot prove their identity or domicile,” UNHCR warned.

In a “Nightmarish Legal Limbo

These people are in desperate need of help because they live in a nightmarish legal limbo,” said Guterres, while launching the campaign on August 25, five days ahead of the 50th anniversary of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, which will be marked on 30 August.

This makes them some of the most excluded people in the world. Apart from the misery caused to the people themselves, the effect of marginalising whole groups of people across generations creates great stress in the societies they live in and is sometimes a source of conflict,” he said.

Although UNHCR puts the number of stateless people roughly at 12 million globally, an exact figure has been difficult to compile. Inconsistent reporting and different definitions of statelessness has meant that the true scale of the problem remains elusive.

The UN refugee agency was created in December 1950, initially as a response to displacement in Europe in the wake of the Second World War.


2011 Human Wrongs Watch

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