In December 2013, conflict ignited in Juba, South Sudan, and soon spread throughout the country. Tens of thousands of civilians fled to United Nations bases for protection. Today, fighting continues, and more than 100,000 South Sudanese are sheltering under the protection of UN peacekeeping forces.
The village of Pagak lies in Ethiopia’s Gambella region on the western border with South Sudan. Pagak essentially exists on both sides of the border, and in better times, people would move from one country to another primarily to meet friends and relatives, engage in trade, or transport livestock.
In September 2013, fighting between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and a Muslim rebel group in the port city of Zamboanga on Mindanao forced 120,000 people - primarily minority Muslims - to flee. More than a year later, tens of thousands remain displaced, living in deplorable conditions.
South Sudan is continuing to reel from internal conflict that ignited in the capital Juba a little more than a year ago and quickly spread throughout the country. On December 15th, 2013, fighting erupted in Juba between soldiers loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar and those loyal to President Salva Kiir. More than one year on the fighting continues, primarily in Jonglei, Unity, and Upper Nile states in the north.
This month, one of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s longest-running conflicts may finally reach an inflection point. After months of political posturing, it appears that the international community will now launch a military offensive against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). The Congolese armed forces (FARDC) will be expected to lead the way, supported by the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC (MONUSCO).
In September 2013, in the city of Zamboanga on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, fighting broke out between the Moro National Liberation Front, a Muslim separatist group, and the Philippine Army. One hundred and twenty thousand people were displaced. The confrontation was the latest in a 40-year struggle by minority Muslim groups – comprised of indigenous ethnic people known collectively as “Moros” – for self-determination. Today, more than one year later, over 38,000 people remain displaced.
In September 2014, Refugees International went to Rakhine State to meet with displaced Rohingya, document the humanitarian situation, and advocate for their rights. Around 900 stateless Rohingya are fleeing Myanmar’s Rakhine State every day on unseaworthy boats that are supposed to take them to Malaysia or Thailand but often put them in the hands of vicious human traffickers.
On November 12, 2014, Refugees International supporters gathered in Midtown Manhattan for the 12th Annual New York Circle. The evening included a presentation on RI's work in Iraq and atime to honor Ann Curry, renowned national and international journalist and recipient of RI’s 2014 Exceptional Service Award. Long-time RI board member Matt Dillon, who presented the award, praised Ms. Curry for her tireless work to showcase humanitarian crises often overlooked or unheard of by the American public.
Earlier this year, I made my first trip to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in a search for some urban refugees. Although urban refugees are not officially recognised by the government of Tanzania, some organisations which work with the urban refugee population, such as Asylum Access, estimate that there may be over 10,000 in the city.
Between 2011 and 2014, the number of people displaced in the DRC's Katanga province jumped from 55,000 to 500,000 – more than 900 percent – as more than 100 villages have been burnt to the ground. Civilians face threats from local rebel movements, tribal militias, and abusive elements of the Congolese army. In this video, RI staffer Michael Boyce provides an update on RI's advocacy in the DRC to ensure that the displaced get the aid and protection they need.
Hunger is a feeling that will not be denied. In times of famine or displacement, people inevitably make sacrifices to feed themselves and their loved ones. They sell their belongings; they do hard labor for little pay; they forego leisure, education, and even healthcare. They do so because if they can eat, then at least they will be alive. But today, in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, many displaced people are so hungry that they are risking their very lives – and fates worse than death – for a few cups of corn or beans. But instead of extending a helping hand, donor governments and humanitarian agencies have largely turned away.
Since the war in Syria began four years ago, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government, the United Nations, and international and local humanitarian agencies have all done what they can to help people survive. But as their time in Iraq grows longer, many of the Syrians are running out of money, no longer have personal belongings to sell, and are continuing to incur debt. Although some refugee camps do exist in the region, many families prefer not to stay in them. As a result, many are becoming so desperate that they end up living on the streets.
On September 30, 2014, the Washington Circle gathered for dinner at the residence of His Excellency The Ambassador of Spain, Ramón Gil-Casares. As the Honorary Chair of RI's 36th Anniversary Dinner, the Ambassador spoke of his time serving as the Spanish Ambassador to Sudan and South Sudan. In addition, the evening featured an around-the-world presentation and a back-from-the-field report on the displacement crisis in Iraq by RI President Michel Gabaudan.
Last month’s advance by the militant Islamic State group (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in northern Iraq forced more than 100,000 people to flee their homes - including the Yazidi minority of Sinjar. Many of those newly displaced made their way to Erbil, Iraq, where they joined tens of thousands of Syrian refugees already seeking shelter in the city. There, they are struggling to get by. Aid agencies are working hard to locate the new arrivals who are living scattered across the city. The displaced often arrive not knowing where to go for help. Some find refuge with family members or friends, but others simply have no option but to settle in one of the city’s public spaces. Many of them lack food, water, and healthcare, and are living in makeshift shelters and unfinished buildings dangerously exposed to the elements, even as winter rapidly approaches.
“This policy calls for UNHCR to pursue alternatives to camps whenever possible. Compliance with this policy is mandatory.” Those words are taken from a policy statement prepared by UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency. Approved by High Commissioner António Guterres on July 22, 2014, the document has curiously not been placed in the public domain, nor have UNHCR’s key partners – donor states, other UN agencies, and NGOs – been informed of its existence. But Refugees International has gained access to a leaked copy.
In many respects, the new “alternatives to camps” policy signifies a remarkable evolution in UNHCR thinking. From the time of the agency’s establishment in the early 1950s until the day that Mr. Guterres came into office in 2005, there was a widespread assumption within the humanitarian community that refugees belonged in camps. Aid providers felt that such settlements made it logistically far easier to register refugees, to monitor their well-being, to provide them with essential relief items, and to organize their repatriation when conditions returned to normal in their country of origin.
Refugee-hosting states reinforced this approach. For such countries, refugees posed less of a security threat if they were confined to camps. Organized settlements made it easier to publicize the plight of refugees and to attract funding from donor states. By providing refugees with their own health and education facilities and water supplies, they placed less pressure on the (often already overstretched) services available to nationals.
While refugee camps attracted some criticism in the 1980s and 1990s – most notably from individuals such as the academic Barbara Harrell-Bond and Merrill Smith of the U.S. Committee for Refugees – it was not until the 2000s that the notion of “alternatives to camps” began to be taken seriously. Why was this?
First, a growing proportion of the world’s refugees were leaving or bypassing the camps established for them, so as to access the livelihood opportunities and more dignified lifestyle available in urban areas. Just like rural populations everywhere, the bright lights of the city were attracting a growing number of refugees, even if they were obliged to live in overcrowded slums and shanty towns.
Second, when he arrived at the UNHCR in 2005, Mr. Guterres found it unacceptable that the agency was colluding with states in obliging refugees to live in camps, contrary to the fundamental right to freedom of movement.
Third and finally, the Iraqi and Syrian refugee crises, both of which involved massive numbers of refugees, showed the declining relevance of a camp-focused response. A good proportion of these Iraqis and Syrians came from urban backgrounds and shunned the opportunity to live in camps when it was on offer. And in certain countries it was not.
More than a million Syrian refugees have now crossed the border into Lebanon, and wishing to avoid a repeat of the country’s negative experience with Palestinian refugees, the Lebanese governmenthas chosen not to open a single camp. Instead, the refugees have taken up residence in the country’s cities and towns or have found shelter in small-scale “informal settlements” usually comprised of around 20 or 30 families.
In 2009, UNHCR issued a policy statement on “refugee protection and solutions in urban areas” which recognized these new realities and asserted the right of people in exile to choose their place of residence. According to this document, UNHCR’s objective was “to ensure that cities are recognized as legitimate places for refugees to reside andexercise the rights to which they are entitled.”
In issuing its new policy on alternatives to camps, UNHCR has gone one step further, recognizing that “millions of refugees have settled peacefully outside of camps in both rural and urban areas, living on land or in housing that they rent, own or occupy informally or in hosting arrangements within communities or families.”
The new policy may not prove easy to implement. Many refugee-hosting states continue to express a strong preference for camps. The logistical argument in favor of camps still carries some weight: it is indeed easier to count, register, and provide for the basic needs of refugees when they are gathered in a single location. And there is a risk that when they are scattered across a host country, mingled in with the host population, the most vulnerable refugees will be deprived of the social safety net that a camp can provide.
Despite these potential difficulties, UNHCR is to be congratulated on its bold new policy of seeking alternatives to camps whenever possible. But it is a mystery why the organization has been so secretive in withholding the document from the partners who fund and implement its programs. A bit more transparency please!
Syrian refugees and many of their marginalized Lebanese neighbors struggle from day to day to afford rent, buy food, and pay for medical care. With such limited options, how do people actually manage to survive in Lebanon as the strain on resources continues to grow?
For decades, Kenya has provided a safe haven to thousands of refugees from neighboring countries fleeing war, persecution, and famine. While most reside in refugee camps, a significant number have made their way to urban centers like Nairobi where they have better access to jobs, education, and medical care. But growing insecurity within Kenya, including terrorist attacks by the Somalia-based terrorist group Al Shabab, have triggered xenophobic responses.
On June 24, 2014, Refugees International introduced its work to a new audience in Los Angeles. The event, hosted by RI Board Member Sam Waterston and his co-star from HBO’s The Newsroom, Thomas Sadoski, was held at the United Talent Agency in Beverly Hills. The evening highlighted RI’s short film Living on the Edge of Disaster: Climate’s Human Cost and featured a presentation and Q & A by RI’s climate displacement expert Alice Thomas.
Although official counts vary widely, hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens are known to be internally displaced. Most of those who fled their homes left as a result of violence at the hands of organized criminal groups. The highest rates of displacement are found in Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Durango, Sinaloa, Michoacán, and Guerrero – all states hit hard by drug cartels and gangs.
It's understandable to assume that Mexicans crossing the U.S. border are seeking livelihood opportunities, and many of the thousands who enter are looking for jobs. But a growing number of Mexicans are fleeing their hometowns due to violence and persecution by organized crime and other armed actors. Refugees International visited Tijuana, Mexico, in May 2014 and met some of these people: mothers who had been denied asylum in the U.S. even though their spouses were allowed in; men who were deported from the U.S. but cannot go home because their states are in turmoil. Many church-affiliated shelters in Tijuana offer free accommodation for 15 days, after which these standed Mexicans must either leave town, move into hostels, or head out onto the streets.