Record 60 Million Displaced Worldwide With No Solutions in Sight

Record 60 Million Displaced Worldwide With No Solutions in Sight
Syrian refugees mass at the Turkish border while they flee intense fighting in northern Syria between Kurdish fighters and Islamic State militants in Akcakale, southeastern Turkey, June 15, 2015 (AP photo by Lefteris Pitarakis).

Nearly 60 million people last year were displaced by war, conflict and persecution, the highest number ever on record, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) annual report today. The largest source of refugees is Syria, with 3.9 million Syrian refugees in 107 countries. Syria overtook Afghanistan in the U.N.’s ranking; Afghanistan had previously held that position for more than 30 years.

As U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonia Guterres said, “We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before.” He specifically called on wealthier countries in Europe and the Persian Gulf to help, as he appealed for “all countries in the world to have their doors open.”

Clearly, UNHCR is facing a monumental task. But other countries should share the burden, rather than it falling to UNHCR primarily. As Amy Slaughter explained in a feature for World Politics Review in 2011, the U.N. refugee agency’s role and mandate have evolved since it was created in 1951:

Its founding statute charged the high commissioner with “the function of providing international protection . . . to refugees . . . and of seeking permanent solutions for the problem of refugees by assisting Governments.” It is clear that UNHCR was commissioned with refugee protection by the General Assembly on behalf of member states, which might be termed a mandate. What is less often discussed, though, is that, even before the concept became fashionable through the U.N. Humanitarian Reform process of 2005, UNHCR's statute envisioned the agency as a provider of last resort: It would be “assisting Governments,” not serving as the sole or primary guardian of refugee welfare. This is worth repeating often, since UNCHR’s place in the refugee-assistance landscape has been a source of confusion at the field level to the detriment of refugees—a confusion abetted by the recitation that UNHCR has the “Protection Mandate,” now with a definite article and capital letters.

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