37 year-old refugee crisis comes to an end

Where do refugees go after the crises that made them refugees leaves the headlines? The options are: go home, get resettled to a wealthier country, stay in the camps.

The UN estimates that at the end of 2008 (the last year there are reliable numbers for at the moment) there were 15.2 million refugees in the world (a refugee here is a person who has fled across a border because of political violence). Eighty percent of these refugees, or about 12.2 million, lived in camps or urban areas in neighboring countries in the developing world (e.g., the 1.8 million Afghans in Pakistan).

Some refugees go home. How many? In 2008, 600,000 refugees went home; 600,000 / 15.2 million = 4%. This was the lowest number since 2004, suggesting that going home is less and less an option.

What about all the refugees resettled in wealthy Western nations? In 2008, 121,000 were proposed for resettlement to wealthier nations (US, Canada, and Western Europe, primarily), or 0.8% of all refugees at the time.  Only 67,000 of these were actually resettled, about 0.4%.

So, most refugees remain in camps and foreign cities for very long periods of time as refugees. Surely there must be some other plan. Well, recently UNHCR has been proposing a policy of “local integration.” Local integration means what it sounds like  — making refugees part of the local economy and society of the region in which they live, with full citizenship rights and privileges, and no more refugee aid. The involves getting local governments to accept that refugees they have played host to for years are there to stay, and getting the refugees themselves to accept that they cannot receive aid forever. This long-term solution is usually pretty long-term. In Chad, the UNHCR started encouraging local integration for refugees from the Central African Republic who had been there for 1o years.

One of the oldest refugee populations are Burundians in Tanzania. Burundi is now infamous for ethnic conflict in 1994 (similar to neighboring Rwanda’s), but many Burundians in Tanzania are there because they fled from massacres in 1972. In other words, these Burundians have been sitting in camps for 37 years. This week, Refugees International reported that last month Tanzania gave citizenship to 162,000 of these Burundians. This is a welcome and generous move by Tanzania, a country that has been host to several large refugee populations — the price of being a peaceful place in a dangerous neighborhood.

(162,000: That’s 1% fewer refugees, for those of you counting.)

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