UNITED NATIONS – The number of people fleeing their homes and becoming refugees or displaced in their own countries will increase in the next 10 years as a result of a host of intertwined causes ranging from conflict and climate change to population growth and food shortages, according to a report Thursday by the U.N. refugee agency.
"The State of the World's Refugees," covering the period 2006-2011, said a key change and dominant challenge is the increasing number of internally displaced people — some 26 million globally compared to around 15-16 million refugees who have crossed borders to another country and a further one million asylum seekers.
It said helping the internally displaced is becoming more costly and dangerous, citing Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq where access is difficult and conflict or criminality can present deadly risk.
"Global forced displacement reached a 16-year high in 2011 and has become more complex than ever before," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wrote in a preface to the report. "Today, conflict and human rights abuses — the traditional drivers of displacement — are increasingly intertwined with and compounded by other factors such as population pressure, food insecurity and water scarcity."
Ban said many of these factors are related "to the relentless advance of climate change." In addition, he said, "growing numbers of people are being uprooted by natural disasters."
The 266-page report said experts predict that natural disasters, which are already displacing millions of people, will increase in number and intensity. And it said climate change is likely to increase conflict over scarce resources which could lead to an increase in internal displacement and refugees.
"Global trends suggest that displacement will not only continue in the future but will take different forms," the report said, citing predictions that global population will increase from 7 billion today to over 10 billion by 2100, with most of the increase in Africa and Asia where increased poverty is likely to squeeze resources and send young people from rural areas to cities.
At a news conference launching the report, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said "a multiplication of new crises ... led to the fact that last year, we had the highest number of new refugees in the last decade."
He said he expects this trend to continue because "the number of crises emerging in 2012 is exactly the same as last year.
At the moment, Guterres said, there are three acute crises — Syria, Sudan-South Sudan and Mali — as well as the recent flight of Congolese to neighboring Rwanda and Uganda.
Guterres said 70 percent of refugees his agency deals with have been refugees for more than five years "and it's becoming more and more difficult to find solutions for them." It's also becoming more difficult to reach out to them and support them, he said.
Eighty percent of refugees live in the developing world — including 1.7 million Afghans in Pakistan, 1 million Afghans in Iran, and more than 600,000 refugees in Kenya — and he urged donors and industrialized nations to step up support and offers of resettlement.
Although the U.N. is legally required to help refugees fleeing conflict or persecution, it has no mandate to assist people displaced in their own country, known as IDPs.
But Guterres said his agency has increasingly assisted IDPs and tried to help the 12 million stateless people.
He said an international debate has started on how to deal with the growing number of people forced to move because of issues such as climate change and population growth who have no legal protection.
"Global displacement is an inherently international problem," Guterres said, "and as such needs international solutions — and by this I mainly mean political solutions."