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Top 10 neglected refugee crises

Fighting in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo has forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes DRCRC

Refugee crises appear to come and go. In 2011, all eyes were on the Dadaab refugee complex in northern Kenya as it received hundreds of thousands of Somalis fleeing famine and conflict. This year, attention has shifted to the refugee exodus from Syria, even though the majority of Somalis who arrived at Dadaab last year are still there.

In fact, most refugee and displacement crises continue long after public attention and donor interest wane, and others never make it into the spotlight. This often leaves the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and aid organizations with the difficult task of assisting large populations of refugees, forced migrants and internally displaced people (IDPs) without sufficient funding, political will or support from the international community.

1. Sudanese refugees in Chad: Nearly a decade of conflict in Sudan's western Darfur region displaced some 1.8 million Sudanese. Of these, more than 264,000 fled into neighbouring Chad, where they continue to live in 12 camps along the country’s eastern border with Sudan. Chad is one of the world's poorest countries and, according to UNHCR, the working environment is “extremely challenging” due to the region’s lack of infrastructure and natural resources. Women in the camps report they sometimes have to walk all day to find firewood, and lack of access to arable land has made the refugees almost entirely dependent on humanitarian assistance to meet their basic needs. Several peace accords between the rebels in Darfur and the Sudanese government have failed to calm the region’s volatility, leaving the refugees reluctant to return home. Meanwhile, humanitarian workers say the long-running nature of the crisis has led to donor fatigue.

2. Eritrean refugees in eastern Sudan: Eritreans have been crossing into eastern Sudan since their country started to agitate for independence from Ethiopia in the 1960s and, more recently, to escape Eritrea’s policy of indefinite military conscription. Currently, about 66,000 Eritreans are living in refugee camps in Gedaref, Kassala and Red Sea states, which are among the poorest parts of Sudan, and a further 1,600 cross the border every month. Many of the newer arrivals view Sudan as a transit country, continuing north with the goal of reaching Europe or Israel. This has made them a target for abuse by smugglers and human traffickers. Those who remain in Sudan cannot legally own land or property and struggle to find jobs in the formal sector. In 2002, refugee status was revoked for those who had fled the independence war and subsequent conflict between Ethiopia and Eritrea, but repatriation was halted in 2004 after widespread international criticism of Eritrea's human rights record.

3. Sudanese refugees in South Sudan: Over the past 18 months, an estimated 170,000 people have fled conflict between Sudanese government forces and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North in Sudan’s Blue Nile and South Kordofan states, pouring into South Sudan's Upper Nile and Unity states. Humanitarian agencies are bracing for a further influx once the rainy season comes to an end and impassable roads reopen. Aid workers fear that swelling refugee numbers, flooding and disease outbreaks could aggravate the crisis, and UNHCR is urgently appealing for an additional US$20 million to manage basic needs in the camps. Poor infrastructure in South Sudan has made delivering emergency assistance both expensive and difficult.

4. IDPs in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): Defections from the Congolese army, which gave rise to the M23 armed group, have led to a resumption of violence in the DRC's North Kivu Province in the last six months. More than 260,000 people have been displaced so far, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. A further 68,000 have fled to neighbouring Uganda and Rwanda. The IDPs are living in dozens of makeshift camps across the province, where aid agencies are providing shelter, protection, food and health services, despite a severe funding shortfall and recurrent attacks on aid workers. The new wave of IDPs adds to the 1.7 million already internally displaced in the country, according to UNHCR.

5. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh: Muslims from Myanmar’s western Rakhine State - commonly referred to as the Rohingya - are an ethnic minority that has endured systemic discrimination and abuse over the past five decades, including being stripped of their citizenship under a 1982 law. Over the past 50 years, thousands have fled the country, the vast majority to Bangladesh. UNHCR has not been permitted to register new arrivals since mid-1992, but it estimates that there are more than 200,000 Rohingya in the country’s southeast. Only about 30,000 of the refugees are documented and living in one of two government-run camps in Cox’s Bazar District, where they are assisted by UNHCR. International agencies, including UNHCR, have been barred by the Bangladeshi government from providing assistance to the undocumented refugees, many of whom live on the periphery of the official camps. Unofficially, several international NGOs are providing services to these refugees, but it remains unclear how long they will be allowed to do so.

6. Tamil refugees in India: More than three years after the end of Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war, there are more than 100,000 ethnic Tamil Sri Lankans in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, including 68,000 in 112 government-run camps. The largest wave of refugees arrived in the camps between 1983 and 1987, with many staying on and having children. It is estimated that more than half of the current refugee population was born in India and knows little of life back in Sri Lanka. Although UNHCR does not have access to the camps, four NGOs are delivering services to the refugees. Since the war ended, just 5,000 have officially repatriated to Sri Lanka with UNHCR assistance. The vast majority remain reluctant to return, citing ongoing reports of human rights abuses and lack of job opportunities. 

7. Afghan refugees in Iran: Afghanistan is the source of one of the world’s largest and most protracted refugee crises, with waves of refugees fleeing the country after the 1979 Soviet invasion, then during Taliban rule in the 1990s, and finally during the last decade of conflict between US-led forces and Taliban insurgents. While much has been written about the 2.7 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, the presence of some 900,000 registered refugees and 1.4 million unregistered Afghans in neighboring Iran has received less attention. Most of them live in urban areas where, under the current regime, intolerance of the refugees has grown and their children are excluded from mainstream education. Promises to naturalize some of the unregistered refugees have not materialized, and they are often subject to mass deportations. Experts warn that forced mass return of refugees to Afghanistan would further destabilize the country, which has a limited capacity to provide jobs, basic services and security to returnees.

8. Horn of Africa refugees in Yemen: Yemen has long been a transit country for migrants trying to reach Saudi Arabia in search of work, but since 2006 it has also become home to increasing numbers of refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Despite conflict, poverty and a sometimes xenophobic environment in Yemen, a record 103,000 refugees and migrants arrived in 2011, bringing the total number of registered refugees to 230,000, in addition to an estimated 500,000 migrants. Their presence has been largely overshadowed by last year’s uprising and political crisis, which displaced hundreds of thousands of Yemenis and contributed to rising poverty in a country that was already the region’s poorest. Refugees living in mostly urban areas are forced to compete with locals for scarce jobs and resources, a situation that has aggravated tensions and increased the vulnerability of many refugees. A funding shortfall of about $30 million has forced UNHCR to limit its assistance.

9. Malian IDPs and refugees in neighbouring countries: During and after the April takeover of northern Mali by Tuareg rebels, who were quickly supplanted by Islamist groups, some 34,977 Malians escaped to Burkina Faso, 108,942 fled to Mauritania and 58,312 went to Niger. Some 118,000 Malians have been internally displaced, 35,300 of them within the north itself, in the regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu. UNHCR faces severe funding gaps in each of the host countries and in Mali, and increasing insecurity is shrinking humanitarian access to populations in need of protection. For host governments and aid agencies, the refugee influx has compounded the food and livelihoods crisis affecting the Sahel region. Should a planned intervention by the Economic Community of West African States be launched in northern Mali, refugee populations are likely to grow further.

10. IDPs in Colombia: Since the start of the conflict between the Colombian government and armed Marxist guerrillas in the mid-1960s, the threat of violence has forced millions to abandon their homes. Indigenous and Afro-Colombian populations living in remote, rural areas have been particularly affected. The government puts the number of IDPs at 3.6 million, but several NGOs estimate the figure is closer to 5 million, pointing out that many of those displaced have not been officially registered. Most now live on the fringes of Colombia’s towns and cities, where they often struggle to adapt to urban life and face discrimination in the search for jobs and opportunities. Lack of identity documents also excludes many from access to public healthcare. Despite recent peace talks between the government and the guerrillas, it remains unsafe for most of the IDPs to return home, making the need for better integration into host communities a priority.


For more stories on migration, please visit our In-Depth Crossing into the Unknown

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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