World Vision International
Blog • Monday, September 19th 2016

Refugees, migrants and internally displaced people

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Two-year-old Helenos in the arms of her mother, Nasbiah, reaches out toward the razor wire installed along the Hungarian-Serbian border. Photo by Laura Reinhardt/World Vision

"Are they really refugees? Or people who just wanted a better life?" I was asked this question while cheering on the first-ever Olympic refugee team in my local coffee shop. The answer here was clear, because the protection status of each refugee Olympian was published in their biographies for the games (IOC, 2016).  But variant of this question, regarding the status and future of far greater numbers of people, will undoubtedly be asked again this week, as the United Nations and US President Obama host high-level meetings on forced displacement and migration.

Each person’s basic legal identity relies on a nation state of birth or habitual residence. If you find yourself outside of this home country and/or this home country will not provide you the basic protections citizens should expect, either the laws of another nation state or UN conventions are needed to protect you.  While they seem to be used interchangeably by some elements of the press, the terms ‘refugee,’ ‘migrant’ and ‘internally displaced person’ represent distinct statuses, which provide people with different protections.

In summary:

Migrants are individuals who are moving or have moved across an international border or within a state away from their habitual place of residence, regardless of: (1) the person’s legal status; (2) whether the movement is voluntary or involuntary; (3) what the causes for the movement are; or (4) what the length of the stay is (UNICEF, 2016).

Refugees are people forced to cross national borders to flee their home because of conflict, persecution or violence. According to the UN 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, additional reasons for people to seek safety outside their country of nationality and their unwillingness to return include a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are individuals or groups of people who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of, or in order to avoid the effects of, armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized state border (UNICEF, 2016).

A key reason for the high level meetings this week are some profoundly large numbers of internally displaced, refugees and migrants:

  • 65 million refugees and IDPs, the largest numbers since World War II (UNHCR, 2015). With budgets well below actual need, UNHCR and civil society are struggling to cope. Uganda alone is receiving 800-1000 refugees per day on a humanitarian response budget that is grossly underfunded (Hughes, 2016).
  • 50 million child migrants and refugees (UNICEF, 2016). This is equivalent to the entire population of South Korea.  Korean citizen UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon often tells the story (you can watch it here) of the UN assisting him when he was displaced as a child in the Korean war. Today, migrant and refugee children need these protections from child labour, bullying due to xenophobia, detention, deportation as well as access to basic services like health care and education. Although the starting point for protection of all children is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the current system of national laws, international conventions and treaties results in major inconsistencies. This can mean that children in almost identical circumstances receive different protection and treatment based on which border they cross.
  • 40 million IDPs due to conflict or violence (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 2016). Unlike migrants and refugees, this population has not crossed an international border, but have many similar needs. Both Syrian refugee and internally displaced children for example, urgently need education assistance.  Inside Syria, however, this need is particularly accute as one in four schools are destroyed, damaged or sheltering displaced people (Frontier Economics/World Vision 2016).  In the coming weeks it’s anticipated that a military campaign to re-take Mosul will significantly increase the numbers of internally displaced people in Iraq (UN News, 2016).. Urgent action is needed to proactively address these situations and governments must agree on concrete measures to improve protection and assistance to internally displaced people.

Urgent action is needed to proactively address these situations and governments must agree on concrete measures to improve protection and assistance to internally displaced people.

  • $27 billion in humanitarian funding went to contexts where there was an active conflict or refugee hosting need in 2015 (GHA, 2016).  In contrast less than 1% of total expenditures ($178MM of a $28BN) were spent in contexts where the needs were due to natural disasters alone.

Behind the numbers are millions of complex personal journeys. Olympic refugee swimmer Yusra Mardini left Syria after both her home and training centre were bombed. She then migrated from Lebanon through multiple countries to Germany where she now has residency and access to Olympic training facilities (New York Times, 2016). Multiple statuses, one journey.

Whether providing digital learning hubs for refugee children in Lebanon or tracking school, health and recreation access for migrant children in El Salvador, World Vision gets to be a small part of the stories for many. From this work, we know that what matters most is the well-being of children. In my experience, well-being is enhanced when there are systematic solutions to the protection, education, psycho-social and health needs of children.

That’s why I’m pleased that World Vision has signed onto the Civil Society Statement and Scorecard to the New York Declaration, which highlights areas where urgent, systematic changes are needed like ending the detention of child asylum seekers and ensuring protection for internally displaced people.  I hope we see the seven immediate actions from this implemented to truly make a ‘difference on the ground for the millions of refugees, migrants and internally displaced people in need of protection.’

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