Today, about 6 million people live in refugee camps. They’ve managed to flee from the risk of persecution in their home country, and now they are forced to wait. Often, conditions in camps are less than subpar. Access to water and healthcare is difficult, and refugees are reduced to living in tents for years — or even decades at a time. Entire families and generations have been born and grown up inside camps originally meant for temporary housing. It’s often difficult to obtain citizenship or work authorization, and millions of refugees are stuck in limbo, hoping for a chance at a new opportunity.
The latest figures from UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, show that there are about 103 million displaced people worldwide in over 134 countries. Projected figures estimate that the number of displaced people will grow to 117.2 million in 2023. What is displacement and how does it affect our communities? Here is an overview of what it means to be displaced, and why we should care.
There are many different categories of displaced people.
Let’s start with the different legal statuses of displaced people. You may have heard terms such as asylum-seeker, refugee, or internally displaced person. These different statuses each have a strict legal definition, and each is given different rights and protections.
What is an asylum-seeker?
An asylum-seeker is a person who has left their country of origin and is seeking protection in another country. However, they have not yet been legally recognized as a refugee and are waiting for a legal decision on their asylum claim. When it was founded, the United Nations declared that seeking asylum from persecution is a human right, and doing so is clearly outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. All people, no matter their origin, have a right to live in safety.
The latest figures show that roughly 4.6 million asylum-seekers are waiting for a decision on their asylum claims. In the United States, the asylum process can take from around 6 months to several years.
What is a refugee?
As of today, there are about 32.5 million refugees worldwide. The term “refugee” was defined by the 1951 Refugee Convention. Refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin based on a fear of persecution based on five categories: race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
Once a person is granted refugee status, they are granted certain legal rights, again outlined in the 1951 Refugee Convention. For example, one key principle is the idea of non-refoulement. It ensures that states cannot send a refugee back to a country where they face serious threats to their human rights.
What is an internally displaced person?
Internally displaced peoples, or IDPs, are those who have been forced to leave their homes due to armed conflict, general violence, or human rights violations, yet have not crossed an international border. IDPs may not have the financial means to undertake such a journey. Many suffer from health conditions that render them unable to flee the country. Some IDPs are surrounded by conflict and stuck in a war zone.
IDPs face similar challenges to refugees and asylum-seekers, yet do not enjoy the same legal protections. They are often located in areas where aid organizations cannot reach them. Their national governments are responsible for their protection; yet these same governments may be unable to grant them protection or may simply refuse to do so.
While refugees most commonly make headlines, there are currently 70.1 million IDPs, more than twice the number of refugees.
What is statelessness and how does it relate to displacement?
Statelessness can hinder freedom of movement, the ability to buy property, vote, open a bank account or even get married. Moreover, stateless people are excluded from government initiatives. Recently, many stateless people were left out of COVID-19 vaccinations or relief packages — they were considered invisible to governments.
Currently, there are around 700,000 Rohingya, an ethnic group which the state of Myanmar refuses to recognize and grant citizenship to. Rohingya are asylum-seekers and refugees like many others; yet they lack birth certificates, access to healthcare, and strict restrictions on their freedom of movement.
Other people in need of international protection
This category was created by UNHCR in 2022 and includes people who are outside of their country of origin, yet don’t qualify for typical refugee status. These people likely need international protection, especially protection against forced return, including access to basic services on a temporary or long-term basis. UNHCR estimates that there are about 5.3 million in need of other international protection.
How do countries address those left out of the refugee framework?
Modern displacement crises have put stress on the refugee framework, showing how its narrow definition, while important, can sometimes leave out equally vulnerable populations.
For example, the majority of displaced people in Venezuela and Ukraine do not qualify for refugee or asylum status, instead relying on temporary protection statuses or humanitarian parole – these statuses grant the recipient the right to live and work in a specific country, but only for a limited amount of time. However, countries can extend these statuses indefinitely.
The sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan prompted the government to grant Afghans humanitarian parole to temporarily reside in the United States.
Addressing the displacement crisis means understanding its root causes.
Understanding the root causes of displacement can help us respond better to people’s protection and assistance needs. It helps us prevent crises which cause families to risk their lives in pursuit of safety. It ensures that today’s displaced will not be displaced again.
UNHCR splits factors leading to displacement into two major categories: drivers and triggers. Drivers are the underlying structural factors that combine, causing a crisis to erupt. For example, there may be:
- Environmental drivers, such as desertification, or climate change.
- Social drivers, such as limited education opportunities or inter-communal tensions.
- Political drivers, such as poor urban planning or corruption.
- Economic drivers, such as poverty, lack of access to markets, or lack of economic mobility.
Secondly, triggers are events precipitated by drivers that leave people little choice but to flee their homes. Armed attacks, natural disasters, or forced eviction are examples of triggers. Triggers themselves may not necessarily lead to displacement; however, their combination with various drivers create hostile and threatening situations. Triggers can also combine or occur in succession, creating a more complex situation.
Let’s examine a few situations around the world and why displacement is happening there.
The displacement crisis in Venezuela can be traced back to the early 2010s, beginning with Hugo Chavez’s presidency. While rising oil prices enriched Venezuela and emboldened its economy, the lack of long-term economic planning became a main driver of future displacement. Today, Venezuela is marred by hyperinflation, and its population struggles to afford basic necessities. In 2018, inflation in Venezuela exceeded 1 million percent. Persistent economic sanctions have added to the already difficult situation in Venezuela, leading to many shortages of food and medical supplies.
Under Nicolas Maduro’s regime, the government began to crack down on anti-government demonstrations, resulting in many extrajudicial killings. In 2017, the UN reported over 5,287 killings by the Venezuelan National Police’s “Special Action Forces.” An additional UN report found that there were 1,569 killings in the first six months of 2019 alone. The Maduro regime has also made it exceptionally difficult for humanitarian agencies to operate within Venezuela, denying much aid to the starving population.
The COVID-19 Pandemic worsened health and safety conditions for the country, as Venezuela was not equipped to deal with the necessary health measures and lacked access to vaccinations or proper health services.
Half of the Venezuelan refugee and migrant population displaced around South America cannot afford three meals a day and lacks access to housing. Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans remain without documentation or permission to stay in nearby countries, denying them access to basic rights.
Six years ago, Morella Perez-Suels left Venezuela to search for a better life in the U.S. Today, she serves as the Education Services Manager at World Relief Spokane, offering hospitality and education for refugees and migrants.
Unique Challenges in the Venezuelan Crisis
The Venezuelan displacement crisis is unique because very few displaced Venezuelans are refugees. Of the 7.13 million displaced, only 211,000 are registered refugees with the UNHCR. Approximately 1 million are asylum-seekers, primarily seeking protection in Peru and the United States. Since poverty and economic downturn are not enough to qualify for refugee status, migrants have fled to neighboring countries seeking temporary protective status and humanitarian parole.
The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has led to over 8 million refugees and migrants fleeing the country. There are approximately 17.6 million people in need of urgent humanitarian assistance, of which 6.5 million are IDPs.
The war in Ukraine was no standalone event — years of political tension and a complicated history foreshadowed the crisis. Russia-Ukraine relations have been generally tense since Ukraine left the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1991. In 2014, Russia capitalized on the political instability of the Ukrainian Revolution. The subsequent ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych allowed Russia to seize Crimea. The war in Ukraine destroyed vital infrastructure and led to many civilian casualties. These factors served as the trigger for the displacement we see today.
Of the 8 million displaced people outside of Ukraine, approximately 5 million have received temporary protection or similar national protection, according to the UNHCR. This means that UNHCR doesn’t legally recognize the majority of Ukrainians as refugees. Thankfully, as the city of Kyiv became safer, the UNHCR was able to repatriate over 4.5 million Ukrainians back to their homes.
While the recent US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 started the latest displacement crisis in that country, many prior factors had made the region unstable.
Afghanistan’s history is complex, and there are approximately 14 major ethnic groups within the country, leading to a unique system of governance while holds its own tensions.
As well, World Food Programme reports show that over half the population faces food insecurity and acute hunger. Afghanistan is the largest opium producer in the world and therefore faces many issues with drug trafficking and crime. Once the US withdrew and the Taliban again took control of the country, many citizens began to face persecution once more.
World Relief Spokane has been fortunate to support many Afghans throughout the last few years. In this blog post, Ibadullah Rasoli recounts his journey from Kabul to Spokane.
Why are displaced people important to our communities?
What does all of this have to do with us here in the United States? When this hardship takes place so far away from our communities, it seems difficult to understand why it is important that we support displaced people.
Supporting refugees and migrants is integral to American history and culture.
The United States is a country built on immigration. Cross-cultural understanding and collaboration are foundational pieces of American values. Today, approximately 44.8 million migrants live in the United States, making up 13.7% of the population. The United States has resettled over 3 million refugees since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980. Migrants deepen and enrich American culture and its diversity of experience, language, food, and customs. A study by the International Institute of St. Louis shows that refugees help improve cross-cultural understanding. They also help locals appreciate cultural diversity and see the shared values and beliefs across different cultures.
Refugees and migrants support local economies.
In 2017, the U.S. government conducted a study that found that refugee contributions exceed the initial cost of resettlement. From 2004-2015, the government spent $206 billion on refugees. During that period, refugees generated over $269 billion in tax revenue. It’s also important to note that refugees have a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Refugees are twice as likely to start a business than regular taxpayers.
We have a spiritual duty to be in solidarity with the oppressed and marginalized.
Jesus built his ministry on the principle of radical inclusion, of empowerment for the most vulnerable in society. He taught us that to fully capture God’s love, we have a duty to uphold the dignity of such people. Being in touch with God’s love means loving the stranger and the foreigner. Regardless of how far away a suffering community might be, we still have a duty to support them.
He makes sure that orphans and widows are treated fairly; he loves the foreigners who live with our people, and gives them food and clothes. So then, show love for those foreigners, because you were once foreigners in Egypt.” — Deuteronomy 10: 17-19
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me.– Matthew 25: 35
The end of displacement begins with you.
Here at World Relief, our mission is to support people who have been forcibly displaced. Sometimes that means action in our local community, helping refugees adjust to life in America, teaching them how to use the bus system, or finding them work. Sometimes that means tackling poverty or malnutrition abroad and stopping displacement at the source.
World Relief relies on the generosity of its donors and volunteers. For World Refugee Day, please consider supporting our efforts.
Antoine Herrbach is a 2023 Summer Intern for World Relief. He is a Senior at Gonzaga University, studying Political Science, History, and Economics.