Understanding the Global Refugee Crisis: Causes and Implications

Understanding the Global Refugee Crisis: Causes and Implications

Refugees conjure up an image of a featureless mass of people, mostly women and children, queuing to be fed and housed in temporary shelters in countries where they fled.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at the end of 1998, Asia was home to the highest number of refugees (4,744,730), followed by Africa (3,270,860), Europe (2,667,830), Northern America (659,800), Latin America (74,180), and Oceania, including Australia and New Zealand (74,310).

A refugee is a person who takes refuge in another country for fear of persecution or a threat to life. Former High Commissioner Sadako Ogata, in 1994, said in an interview: “If they cross the border, I have an automatic mandate.” The treatment of refugees comes within the ambit of the humanitarian obligation of each state.

Article 14 of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries.” The latter part of the 20th century underscored the importance of respecting and observing human rights as one of the fundamental obligations of the member states.

Conflict and Refugees

Armed conflicts or civil wars cause a massive exodus of refugees, mostly women and children.

Civil wars occur in countries at different levels of political and economic development. Prolonged civil wars cause large-scale damage to infrastructure, depletion of human resources, militarization of society, societal disruption, and displacement of people from their homes.

Much of the fighting in civil wars occurs in the countryside, displacing civilians and hitting rural economies hard.

The number of refugees all over the world has increased considerably because of armed conflicts in various parts of the world.

The refugees have become helpless victims, not of their own making. It is important that they are protected and treated humanely in countries where they take refuge. The period of refuge may be as brief as a few weeks or may prolong for many years. Some refugees are resettled in new countries, and some may return to their original countries but not to their original homes.

Civilian victims of armed conflicts move from country to country as refugees. The wars between Israel and Arab states caused an exodus of Palestinian refugees since 1948.

Millions of Palestinian refugees are scattered over countries in the Middle East. The Algerian independence war in the 50s caused thousands of Algerian refugees to flee to Tunisia and Morocco. In the 60s, the Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) conflict led over 210,000 Rhodesian people to take refuge in Mozambique, Botswana, and Zambia.

During the Bangladesh Liberation Struggle in 1971, nearly 10 million (according to UNHCR, the total number was 9,899,305) refugees fled to India, most of them in West Bengal. The number of refugee camps in West Bengal was 492, in Tripura 276, Meghalaya 17, Assam 28, Bihar 8, Madhya Pradesh 3, and Uttar Pradesh 1. Nearly 7 million were located in refugee camps, and the rest lived with host families.

The Mozambique civil war began in 1976 and did not end until 1992. Some 1.7 million Mozambicans had become refugees in neighboring countries, namely Malawi, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Malawi, a small country, accepted as many as 1.1 million Mozambican refugees.

The Vietnam War from the 50s to the 70s destabilized the whole Asia-Pacific region. Refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos began to pour into other countries, including South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Singapore. When Saigon fell to the communists in 1975, some 140,000 Vietnamese refugees were evacuated from the country, and they took refuge abroad.

Since 1983, the civil war in Sri Lanka prompted Tamil nationals to take refuge in India, Europe, the US, and Australia. The civil wars in Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama) in the 70s have caused thousands of civilians to be homeless.

They took refuge in neighboring countries. The civil war in Tajikistan in 1992 caused around 60,000 people to flee their homes to Afghanistan (the civil war ended in 1993). During the wars in Afghanistan (1979-1988) when the Soviet Union occupied the country, 3 million Afghans fled to Pakistan and about 2 million to Iran.

During the 90s, the Balkan war led to an estimated 500,000 refugees in neighboring countries, while another 700,000 had become refugees in Western Europe. In 1994, the Rwandan civil war caused Rwandan refugees to flee to neighboring countries.

In Zaire (now Congo) alone, there were about 746,000 Rwandan refugees. In 1994, of the estimated 46 million refugees, as many as 40 million fled due to conflicts. With over a million people forced to leave their homes in Kosovo, Chechnya, and East Timor in 1999 alone due to conflicts, the problem of refugees will remain a major concern of the international community in the 21st century.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees had to handle 11,491,710 million refugees by the end of 1998. In 1992, the global refugee population peaked when some 18.2 million refugees were recorded.

The number of refugees does not include internally displaced persons and asylum seekers who are described by the UNHCR as “others of concern” to UNHCR. Taken together, in 1997 UNHCR had to deal with 22.4 million people worldwide. Refugees and Conflict

As armed conflicts caused a huge flow of refugees, the issue of refugees, in turn, may lead to tensions and conflicts between states. Both refugees and conflicts seem to work in a cyclical order. The issue of refugees has been a sensitive subject for states because states that cause refugee problems are perceived as intolerant of racial, religious, or linguistic minorities.

Such treatment of minorities is contrary to the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. No state likes to be seen negatively in the international community.

The issue of refugees has been a source of tension among states. For instance, in South Asia, Nepal and Bhutan had tensions over 100,000 Bhutanese Nepali-speaking refugees living in Nepal.

Bhutan considers them as Nepalese under the 1980 citizenship laws, while Nepal does not accept Bhutan’s claim. This issue remains unresolved. The Dalai Lama’s refuge in India in 1959 from Tibet has been a source of tension between China and India.

The number of Tibetan refugees swelled to around 100,000 in India. China considers that by giving refugee status to the Dalai Lama and his disciples, India has been interfering in China’s internal affairs.

Refugees from Myanmar (Burma) into Thailand have caused a political problem between the two countries. The refugees belong mostly to Shan and Karen tribes who have been waging a civil war against the government of Myanmar for the last six decades.

Myanmar often accuses Thailand of encouraging rebels in their fight against Myanmar. Indonesia’s relations with Australia became strained in 2001 when Australia refused.

Asylum Seekers and Internally Displaced Persons

Conflicts also give rise to other categories of persons who had to leave their homes. They are (a) asylum seekers and (b) internally displaced persons.

Asylum Seekers All those who are not considered refugees fall under the category of asylum seekers. According to the UNHCR Statistical Overview of 1998, the total number of asylum seekers at the end of 1998 was 954,000. During 2000, some 30,650 asylum applications were submitted in 21 European countries.

Instances of asylum seekers include Benazir Bhutto, who has been living in London and UAE since 1998, and Taslima Nasreen, a Bangladeshi national who took asylum in Sweden for having published a controversial and extremely provocative book “Lajja” (Shame) on women and Islam.

Anup Chetia of the United Liberation Front of Assam sought asylum in Bangladesh through the court when he was tried for illegal entry and possession of a forged passport.

The Court sentenced him to six years and nine months imprisonment in November 1998 and again seven years imprisonment in September 2002 for illegal possession of a satellite telephone set.

Many Third World former dictators left their countries and sought asylum in a Third country. For instance, Idi Amin of Uganda lived and died in Saudi Arabia, and Ethiopia’s former dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam took refuge in Zimbabwe.

Internally Displaced Persons Internally displaced persons are those people who move out from their homes due to conflicts and cannot or do not cross national boundaries. The miserable conditions of such people are often neglected by both international and national organizations.

International organizations may not have access to such people because of objections of national governments, and domestic agencies cannot reach them because of conflicts.

The civil war in Sri Lanka has resulted in 603,000 internally displaced persons in 1998. In the 90s, the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh conflicts within the Georgian autonomous territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and the civil war in Tajikistan witnessed a large-scale forced displacement of civilians.

In 1994-95, there was a large-scale displacement of people in and around Chechnya (Russia). When the Bosnia war ended in 1995, an estimated 1.3 million people were internally displaced. In Angola, about 4 million people were displaced during the prolonged civil war from 1988 to 2002.

According to the UN-commissioned Report, released in September 2000, more than 25 million were internally displaced persons, half of them in Africa. About 3.9 million are still displaced in the Balkans and former Soviet republics.

The UN Report said that internally displaced persons were also targeted for forced recruitment into guerrilla armies. They are also exposed to direct physical attacks, forced labor, torture, rape, and other abuses in their own countries.

The Report confirmed two worrying trends:

  1. large numbers of innocent civilians were being forced from their homes by increased insecurity and
  2. many of these displaced persons remained officially neglected by government authorities.

Although there is no mandate of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to help internally displaced persons, UNHCR provides assistance to approximately 6.4 million.

The UN Secretary-General appointed a Special Representative to look after displaced persons as far as possible. The Special Representative outlined 30 Guiding Principles for governments and humanitarian organizations.

Two of these Principles are that every human shall have the right to be protected against being arbitrarily displaced from his/her home or place of habitual residence (Principle 6.1) and that competent authorities have the primary duty to establish safe conditions for them to return voluntarily in safety and dignity to their homes (Principle 28.1).

However, it is reported that the Guiding Principles continue to be ignored by many governments.

In January 2002, the UN Secretary-General had set up a special unit for internally displaced persons. The Unit will work closely with other organizations like the Red Cross, the International Organization for Migration, and non-governmental organizations.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is mandated under the Geneva Conventions to protect and assist the victims of armed conflict and has been increasingly involved with the displaced persons, participating in more than 30 operations since the early 1970s.

International Refugee Organizations

Refugees are vulnerable people as they are homeless and almost penniless. They are liable to exploitation and abuse. When the League of Nations came into force in 1920, the world was suffering from the aftermath of the First World War (1914-18).

In 1917, the Russian Communist Revolution and the collapse of the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire resulted in the mass movement of people in Europe and in West Asia. 1.5 million refugees were scattered in many countries.

Fridtjof Nansen of Norway, a renowned Arctic explorer, believed that the League of Nations provided an opportunity to establish peace in Europe.

Between 1920-22, he undertook four vast humanitarian operations. In 1921, the League of Nations appointed Nansen as the first High Commissioner of Refugees, a role he performed tirelessly until his death in 1930.

One of the fundamental problems facing refugees was their lack of internationally recognized identity papers. So, Nansen introduced a travel document called the “Nansen passport,” the forerunner of today’s Travel Document for refugees under the 1951 UN Convention for Refugees.

When the League of Nations was replaced by the United Nations (UN) in 1945, the General Assembly, at its first session, adopted a resolution (A/res/8.1) in respect of the activities of the refugees. The UN established the International Refugee Organization (IRO) in 1946 to deal with the displaced persons caused by the Second World War.

IRO was to become principally an agency for the repatriation of refugees. However, the organization ran into political trouble because the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries did not join the IRO. This led to the formal liquidation of the IRO in 1952, although it ceased virtually its work by June 1950.

Since there was a considerable number of refugees, Belgium and France proposed to create an office of High Commissioner, which was opposed by the Soviet Union.

However, the Western countries supported the proposal, and the Economic Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN adopted a twin resolution out of which emerged the Statute of the High Commissioner for Refugees and the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The convention defines who is to be considered a refugee. There are four fundamental elements of refugees:

  1. they are outside the country of their origin,
  2. they are unable to receive protection from their country of origin,
  3. they have a well-founded fear of persecution, and
  4. persecution is based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.

Office of the UN High Commissioner For Refugees (UNHCR)

UNHCR was established by a UN General Assembly resolution (A/Res.319.IV of 3 December 1949 and 428.V of 14 December 1950) called the Statute of the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, adopted on 14 December 1950.

The Statute describes in Article 8 the functions of the High Commissioner. UNHCR is a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly and will discharge its duties under the guidance of ECOSOC. It began its operation on 1 January 1951.

The High Commissioner, acting under the authority of the UN General Assembly, assumes the function of providing international protection to refugees.

The work of the High Commissioner is of a non-political character, and the High Commissioner will follow the directives of the General Assembly or ECOSOC of the UN.

All important issues, including policies, are considered by the Executive Committee of the High Commissioner’s Programme. Fifty-three states are members of the Committee. (Mostly, those countries that have accepted refugees are elected as members of the Committee.) The members are almost permanent.

UNHCR will also assist the governments in seeking a permanent solution for the refugees. The High Commissioner has appointed representatives in over 120 countries in all continents.

In December 2000, UNHCR marked a half-century of helping millions of refugees – the world’s most vulnerable people. Time Magazine’s 31 December 1999 edition has as its “Person of the Century” Albert Einstein, a genius and an eminent refugee.

According to the UNHCR Statistical Yearbook of 1998, published in 1999, with continuing conflicts around the world, UNHCR looked after 22.4 million in 1997 and more than 21 million refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons in 1998.

Position of High Commissioner for Refugees

The High Commissioner (with the status of an Under-Secretary-General) is appointed by the UN Secretary-General after the UN General Assembly endorses a person’s nomination. Ordinarily, the High Commissioner is elected for three years but may be re-appointed.

The first High Commissioner was Gerrit van Heuven Goedhart from the Netherlands (1951-56). The 9th High Commissioner, Ruud Lubbers, who was a former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, took over the office in September 2000 and resigned in early 2005.

Funding OF UNHCR

Initially, UNHCR was set up as a non-operational agency for a period of three years. Its staff consisted of a handful of persons, and its budget was US$300,000. Direct, voluntary contributions from governments, non-governmental organizations, and individuals almost entirely fund UNHCR. A limited subsidy from the UN is used exclusively for administrative costs.

At present, staff has increased to 5000 persons, and the 1995 budget was around US$1.3 billion. UNHCR’s top donors are the USA, the European Union, and Japan, with Europe responsible for 42 percent of UNHCR’s total funding.

The US$10 million Chechnya Emergency Operation demonstrated that UNHCR could collect the funding necessary to save the lives of the civilians in Chechnya and those who moved to Dagestan, next to Chechnya.

Functions of UNHCR

UNHCR is a fully operational agency. The regional offices of UNHCR in Asia are based in New Delhi, Bangkok, and Hong Kong.

UNHCR’s efforts are two-fold:

  1. preventive and
  2. a global approach to the resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers.

With regard to refugees, UNHCR carries out primarily six types of work, and they are as follows:

Determination of refugee status

This involves activities to determine the status of a refugee if a state is uncertain about deciding the status concerning a person who claims refugee status. Only a few states have instituted procedures for assessing refugee claims, and as a result, UNHCR’s assistance is required to determine the status to protect the individual.

Emergency assistance

This includes measures to meet basic needs, usually in the case of a new refugee influx. The assistance does not normally exceed a period of 12 months.

Care and maintenance

This covers assistance once survival is no longer threatened. It involves meeting basic needs on a more routine basis, pending the identification of durable solutions (voluntary repatriation, local settlement, and resettlement). Assistance usually takes the form of providing food, water, household utensils, medical care, shelter, transportation, basic education, vocational training, etc.

Voluntary repatriation

This covers preparations for departure to the country of origin, transportation, etc. In most cases, it also involves activities in the country of origin, including organizing reception facilities and assistance during the initial phase of reintegration.

Local settlement assistance

This covers activities providing assistance to refugees who cannot return home. It aims to promote their self-sufficiency and local integration.


This involves the offer of resettlement to refugees who are admitted temporarily to a country of refuge, cannot return to their home country, and face particular protection problems. UNHCR facilitates permanent resettlement in third countries by securing resettlement places, medical screening, arranging for travel, and measures to facilitate the integration of refugees in the country of resettlement.

It is significant to note that UNHCR will not allow any refugee to be returned to their country of origin forcibly. Repatriation must be voluntary, and no pressure should be laid on refugees to return to their home country. The work of UNHCR derives from its supervisory role and from the obligations of states to cooperate with UNHCR.

The existence of a definition of a refugee under the 1951 Convention often raises the question of determining whether a particular person is a refugee or not.

It has been observed that states, in case of doubt, seek advice from UNHCR. This is because UNHCR has been entrusted with the responsibility of the protection of refugees and is competent to determine who comes within the purview of the definition of a refugee.

Generally speaking, states abide by the decisions of UNHCR. Furthermore, the views of UNHCR are taken into account when determining whether a normal situation has been restored in the country of origin before refugees are sent back.

During 1999, Kosovo, East Timor, and Chechnya kept UNHCR engaged in looking after refugees under extreme pressure.

The year 1999 was a year of challenge for UNHCR. Kosovar refugees were sent back to Kosovo once UNHCR certified that there was no danger for refugees to return, even though the basic necessities of life are hard to come by in Kosovo.

East Timorese refugees returned from the Indonesian part of West Timor by 2000. Since 2003, many Afghan refugees have returned to their country from Pakistan and Iran.

Expanded Mandate of UNHCR

UNHCR’s work appears to have been transformed in the post-Cold War period by its efforts to respond to the proliferation of conflicts and causes of displacement of people. The scale of the refugee situation seems to reflect the uncertainty and instability of the modern era.

UNHCR has been entrusted with work that does not strictly fall under its competence. In 1972, UNHCR was requested by the UN to look after the Ugandan Asians who were expelled by former President Idi Amin of Uganda.

In 1974, UNHCR assisted the internally displaced persons in Cyprus. In 1979, UNHCR was involved with “potential refugees” of Vietnam. Since 1994, the General Assembly has directed UNHCR to be involved in persons who cross the borders.

In parts of Africa and in the Balkan States, armed conflicts dictated the need for UNHCR to provide protection and assistance in new situations.

Protection activities within the countries of origin have proved essential to stem the flow of refugees. This has resulted in UNHCR’s direct involvement in providing protection to various categories of persons, such as internally displaced persons and stateless persons, besides the refugees.

One of the goals of UNHCR is to ensure that states fulfill their obligations to provide national protection. To this end, UNHCR has encouraged the newly independent states out of the Soviet Union to enact nationality laws that do not exclude individuals who might otherwise become stateless and, therefore, vulnerable to abuses. It is one of the ways to prevent refugee flows.

UNHCR has another concern for refugees. Refugees often go back to villages that have been devastated and homes that have been razed to the ground.

Many of the Kosovar refugees have returned to Kosovo with little hope of reconstruction of their homes or economic development. Many of the Afghan refugees who had returned had been victims of renewed violence.

Ordinarily, UNHCR’s responsibility towards returning refugees should end, but there appears to be a risk for refugees unless the need for international protection by UNHCR or at least monitoring of human rights exists even after refugees have returned.

UNHCR AND The Environment

A sudden influx of refugees in a country where refugee camps are located can have a serious impact on the social and natural environment of nearby communities. The impact of refugees on natural resources is of particular concern.

Forest destruction is the most serious environmental problem. Degradation of natural resources through deforestation can have long-lasting effects on flora and fauna. Water pollution is an added problem. The presence of refugees may not be welcome by the local community.

Refugees are not fully aware of local customs and traditions. With the presence of refugees, the price of consumer goods rises. All these add to tension between the local community and refugees.

UNHCR has responded to these concerns by lending its support to the policy changes that promote a more sustainable refugee assistance program.

An Environment Unit was established at the Headquarters in Geneva in 1993. In 1995, a new environmental policy was approved and developed in detail in the UNHCR Environmental Guidelines, issued in June 1996.


UNHCR and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have worked together since its inception in 1950. Both these bodies are involved in the planning, coordination, and implementation of refugee programs. Many NGOs have been engaged in the resettlement of displaced persons.

Because of their flexibility, NGOs are able to intervene quickly to provide essential relief to refugees. UNHCR depends on them to provide invaluable information about the unfolding crises. NGOs raise awareness of and sensitize politicians and the public to humanitarian issues.

NGOs also play a key role in bridging the gap between relief and development, helping refugees to integrate with local populations.

The 90s saw the biggest increase in the number of NGOs, their size, operational capabilities, and resources. In 1994, there were estimated to be over 100 NGOs operating in Zaire (Congo), 150 in Mozambique, 170 in Rwanda, and some 250 in Bosnia.

Some of the international NGOs such as World Vision, CARE, Medicine without Frontiers, etc., became the implementation partners with UNHCR to address the needs of refugees. According to UNHCR, about 1000 NGOs are involved in working directly or indirectly with refugees all over the world.

UNHCR has formal agreements with more than 250 NGOs. One-quarter of UNHCR’s global budget – 300 million US dollars a year – is channeled through NGOs.

Because of the immense assistance by NGOs in every aspect of refugees, UNHCR and its NGO partners embarked on a process known as Partnership in Action (PAR-in AC), which culminated in a global conference in June 1994 in Oslo (Norway). The Plan of Action adopted by the conference constitutes the blueprint of NGO-UNHCR cooperation in the areas of protection, emergency preparedness and response, relief, resettlement, and development.


One of the major issues confronting UNHCR is the inadequacy of definitive legal tools available for providing protection to vulnerable persons displaced or uprooted from their homes.

Besides refugees, there are many persons who flee under conflict situations not covered by the 1951 Convention.

The gaps in legal protection for all categories of persons, such as refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons, have broadened the scope of international protection, involving the additional mandate of UNHCR without amending the 1951 Convention. This creates a difficulty because States are only obliged to comply with the 1951 Convention.

The expanded mandate of UNHCR has no corresponding obligations to States, and often, UNHCR finds it hard to receive cooperation from States.

For the smooth running of programs for all categories of people who seek shelter, many experts suggest that the 1951 Convention should be amended in light of UNHCR’s expanded mandate.

It appears that the challenge of UNHCR in the future is to ensure that the rhetoric of political leaders’ human rights turns into practical measures within states. A balance has to be struck between the individual and collective responsibilities of States.

Each State should ensure the observance of human rights for its nationals, and the international community should address the humanitarian needs of the people of developing countries to stem the flow of refugees, asylum seekers, and internally displaced persons.

It is argued that an early warning system is to be developed so that UNHCR is able to intervene with the authorities of States so that the flow of such categories of people does not occur.

Prevention seems to be the new approach of the international community, and preventive efforts may take the form of enhancing the legal norms through extending technical advice, training, information, and institution building in countries worldwide.