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Where Are the World’s Hidden Refugees?

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Picture these iconic refugee images—an African woman holding a child, gazing stoically into the camera against a backdrop of huts and tents in a barren landscape. A long line of people, men, women, and children—again, usually African—on the move with all their worldly possessions on their heads and their backs. An emaciated African child being examined in a clinic by a Western doctor or nurse in a vest with a red cross emblem.

These images have become iconic because for several decades they have encapsulated the plight of refugees. World Refugee Day (June 20) gave opportunity to reflect on the ways these images don’t really to justice to today’s realities.

While conflicts in Africa continue to displace hundreds of thousands of people, this year the U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, is highlighting the fact that refugee numbers have increased from ten million to nearly twelve million due to the persistence of refugee crises in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While the Afghan presence in Pakistan and Iran, still numbering three million, has been a reality for decades, Iraqi displacement increased in 2007, with 600,000 newly displaced internally and still more fleeing into neighboring countries in the Middle East, especially Syria and Jordan. In all, nearly half of the refugees of concern to UNHCR are from Iraq and Afghanistan alone.

The reality of the lives of Iraqi refugees requires further adjustment of our refugee iconography. Iraqi refugees are not in camps. They live, virtually invisible, in urban areas, especially in Damascus and Amman.

They are hard to reach with basic services. Some, fearing eventual deportation, avoid registering with UNHCR. They gradually draw on whatever savings they may have brought with them from Iraq. Some try to find illegal employment in low-paying jobs in the informal sector.

Their children have had their schooling disrupted, though after extensive efforts, special international funding has been granted to support the inclusion of some Iraqi children in the school systems of the host countries.

The phenomenon of urban refugees is growing. Among the more than one million Zimbabweans outside their country in southern Africa are tens of thousands of people who could qualify as refugees living an underground existence in urban areas of South Africa and Zambia.

In Southeast Asia, host countries largely bar Burmese from accessing refugee camps, leaving them to fend for themselves in urban centers such as Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

In Latin America, political violence drives the internally displaced of Colombia out of rural areas and into towns, where they live unregistered on the margins of society.

The growth in the number of urban refugees coincides with two other developments: the overall erosion in the commitment of states to asylum for those fleeing persecution and conflict and large-scale economic migration. The twin fears of terrorist infiltration and inundation from illegal immigration have combined to create an environment in which countries of first asylum assume the worst when individuals seeking protection arrive on their doorstep.

Meanwhile, there are an estimated 200 million people now living outside their country of origin, and only a portion of this migration is from poor countries of the global South to the industrialized world.

With high levels of economic imbalance within developing regions and with poverty often associated with internal conflict and human rights abuses, refugee flows amidst the movement of economic migrants are a common phenomenon within the South.

China, Thailand, Malaysia, India, South Africa, Kenya, and Egypt are among countries that are magnets both for individuals fleeing persecution and for those seeking employment and greater economic opportunity.

These developments combine to pose special challenges for protecting the world’s twelve million refugees. While camps will still be required and appropriate in some places—in Chad, for example, to shelter refugees from Darfur—the trend will be for more and more refugees to find themselves either forcibly or voluntarily trying to survive among the underclass in urban areas.

UNHCR and the non-governmental organizations that provide services with its support will have to adjust the way they work.

First and foremost, refugees need to be found. This means sending teams into urban areas and reaching out, like social workers, to identify vulnerable refugees and register them.

It also involves talking to government officials, who need to be convinced that within the mass of urban poor and illegal migrants there are people who qualify for international protection. Ensuring legal status also goes a long way towards preventing statelessness for current and future generations.

UNHCR will need to find creative ways of providing assistance to vulnerable people. Local religious institutions and community-based organizations should play an important role in delivering the aid, but they will need funding.

Providing cash or vouchers to individual families, who in turn will choose how to spend the funds, is more effective than setting up feeding centers or special schools and health facilities.

To its credit, UNHCR recognizes the challenges inherent in the evolving nature of refugee flows and the response of host countries to their needs for asylum. But experience suggests that it will need time to shift its approach.

It can only help if donor government officials and the general public adjust their own perspectives too, and start to understand the diversity of refugee experiences today.

By Joel Charny

Joel’s post is part of Reuters AlertNet’s World Refugess Day Feature on


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