SEATTLE — While the plight of refugees has entered much more firmly into media consciousness this year than in the past, many may have an incomplete definition of what a refugee is or why their displacement matters. The UNHCR reports the highest number of persons of concern this year than any year since World War II, and those numbers are projected only to go up. What is the definition of refugees and how does their status fit into a larger category of people forced to live outside their homes? Here are three things you may not have known about forced migration, and how it interacts with the conditions of people in poverty.
- What is forced migration? The UNHCR and other agencies have created a working definition that seeks to encompass the controversies of an increasingly global and more volatile world. Victims of forced migration are those who have, for political or economic reasons, found themselves forced to leave their homes or primary places of residence for fear of their lives and safety. This can also include people who are displaced as a result of environmental or natural disasters, chemical or nuclear disasters, as well as development projects or famine, in addition to conflict and threats against personal safety. These people can be refugees, asylum seekers and those internally displaced or lacking citizenship. The given definition encompasses a vast group of people, a more diverse and intersecting image than is often reported in the media, perhaps even including people we have met in our daily lives.
- Forcibly displaced people include internally displaced people, who may still live within their own country borders but are unable to return to their homes, districts, or cities. Some 27.5 million people worldwide currently live in situations of internal displacement as a result of conflict or human rights violations. Although internally displaced people now outnumber refugees by two to one, their plight receives far less international attention. Why is this the case? Many IDPs are extremely vulnerable: they remain mired in conflict zones, exposed to violence on a daily basis and often have limited access to employment, food, education and healthcare. IDPs often become both the chattel and the debris of a war zone; they are caught in the crossfire of internal conflict and are sometimes pitted against other groups for political purposes. In Iraq, for example, internally displaced people remain in the country exposed to the daily turmoil of warfare, but are often unable to return to their own houses, or are forced to move to different areas of the country, to escape persecution based on religious, ethnic or political status.
- Victims of forced migration are disproportionately likely to suffer from the conditions of poverty, including gender based violence and personal insecurity, malnourishment, lack of access to health care, disruption of education and work and more. Especially as increasing numbers of women and children become displaced, they will continue to experience sexual violence at higher levels than others. People forced from their homes are also more likely to experience persecution and violence if they identify as LGBTQIA, and may not find assistance in existing systems of support for refugees. Overall, people forced to leave their homes often remain at the mercy of environmental, political and personal insecurity, simply staying housing-insecure as a result of their increased vulnerability, contributing to an awful cycle.
So what is forced migration? The answer is more complex than is generally understood and involves demographics from all parts of the world. Some are forced out of their homes and countries because of armed conflict, while some are temporarily homeless because of natural disasters. All seek more stability and security while subject to the feeling of being faceless and nameless, even those relatively close to home. The U.S., along with other international partners, is working with various governments around the world to end homelessness among people who have been forcibly displaced and to help resettle people – including refugees – who are building a home somewhere new. Understanding their situation in the larger context of forced migration will help us do more to listen to their voices and to solve their plight.
– Eliza Campbell
Photo: U.N. Multimedia