REFUGEE WEEK: Burden of help falls on poor nations

A new report shows that four out of five refugees are in developing countries, while anti-refugee feelings grow in the rich world. With numbers on the rise, how can we share the burden?

Within the last few weeks, the conflict between protestors and the regime in Syria has sent ten thousand across the border into Turkey.

It’s the latest example of a growing international problem: people forcibly displaced by wars, political violence and natural disasters becoming refugees in neighbouring countries, some of which can’t cope with the influx.

Yesterday, a new report by the United Nations showed that 43.7 million people had been displaced worldwide by the end of 2010. Over 15 million of those had to flee their home country and over 27 million are still in their home country but are ‘displaced internally’. 850,000 are seeking asylum, of whom 15,500 are children separated from their families, mostly from Somalia or Afghanistan.

‘The world is failing these people,’ said Antonio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Since the report’s figures were collected and analysed, violence in Libya, Syria and Ivory Coast has created hundreds of thousands more refugees.

But the UNHCR identifies some important underlying trends. Commonly now, wars are complicated and long-drawn-out affairs, leaving millions displaced for a long time. More than seven million have been stuck in exile for over five years, according to the report. Some Afghans, who have accounted for over a third of all global refugees for the last decade, have now been in exile for 30 years, since the Soviet invasion of 1979.

Iraqis, Somalis, people from Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan have also been in the top ten refugee nationalities throughout the last ten year period. Their countries of origin remain violent and troubled, limiting hopes of return.

For Mr Guterres, the most worrying trend is for the impact of refugees to be felt disproportionately by some of the world’s poorest countries, including Pakistan and Iran, which have troubles of their own.

‘There are worrying misperceptions about refugee movements,’ he said. ‘Fears about supposed floods of refugees in industrialised countries are being vastly overblown or mistakenly conflated with issues of migration. Meanwhile it’s poorer countries that are left having to pick up the burden.’

Troubled neighbours

In industrialised countries like the UK, immigration is a controversial political issue. As a result, people tend to overestimate how many refugees we are helping, and the impact on the economy.

Germany, for example, has the largest refugee population in the developed world, at 594,000 people, but the burden is comparatively small in relation to its economy: there are only 14 refugees for each dollar of per capita national income. Pakistan, which can ill afford the problem, has 710 refugees for each equivalent dollar.

Refugees prefer to stay near to their home country, but should the rest of the rich world be doing more to help?

You Decide

  1. 'The UK is already too crowded. We can't take in any more.' Do you agree? If so, how would you decide which people to let in?
  2. Britain is just within the top 10 host countries, with 238,100 refugees and 14,880asylum seekers. Do you feel proud of these figures? Surprised that they are so high? Or so low?


  1. Research the idea of 'taking sanctuary'. Write a short piece or poem, or make a picture, on this theme.
  2. Play Against All Odds, a computer game suitable for ages 7+, about the refugee experience. What are your reactions?

Some People Say...

“It's natural to look after your own people first, then your neighbours.”

What do you think?

Q & A

So why is this report so important?
Well, the UNHCR measures refugee movements every year. But 2011 is the 60th anniversary of the international agreement on safeguarding refugees, the 1951 Refugee Convention. The agreement, and the UN department, were a response to the millions of Jews and other people who fled the Nazis during WWII.
So there's a history to this?
Most industrialised countries have experienced regular waves of immigration as wars or religious or ethnic hatred sent new populations their way. America is founded on this idea, best expressed in a poem engraved inside the Statue of Liberty: 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.'
The refugees bring benefits then?
Yes. And UK Refugee Week's campaign wants to persuade the Brits how rich refugee contributions to our economy and culture have been – by reminding us, for instance, that fish and chips, the mini, and Marks and Spencer were all invented or founded by refugees.

Word Watch

Asylum seekers
People whose request to take refuge in a country has not yet been accepted. Asylum in this sense means 'place of safety'. Not to be confused with an insane asylum, although technically the word has the same meaning in both uses.
Per capita
This means per head of the population.
Statue of Liberty
The colossal figure that welcomes people arriving to New York by sea. The poem about welcoming immigrants and refugees is in the links below.

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