Yesterday, 20 June, marked World Refugee Day, recognizing the plight of the more than 65.6 million people worldwide who have been forcibly displaced by persecution, conflict and human rights violations. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), there are currently more than 22.5 million refugees, more than at any time since the Second World War.
Growth in the number of people forcibly displaced has been particularly acute since 2012 as a result of conflicts that feature the widespread commission of mass atrocity crimes. Among the top ten countries with the highest number of people who have been forced to flee across borders and become a refugee, nine are states where populations have experienced mass atrocities, including Syria, South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Central African Republic (CAR), Myanmar, Eritrea and Burundi.
Recurring fighting and pervasive insecurity, resulting from a civil war between forces loyal to the government and armed rebels loyal to the former Vice President, have caused South Sudan to be the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world. With both sides responsible for ethnic targeting and killing civilians, as well as widespread sexual violence, more than 737,000 people fled South Sudan during 2016 with tens of thousands more fleeing during the first six months of 2017. Today, more than one in four people in South Sudan have been forcibly displaced.
Meanwhile conflict between the army and armed militias in the Kasai region of the DRC has resulted in the largest increase in internal displacement in the world, with 1.3 million newly displaced persons. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has discovered more than 42 mass graves in the Kasai region and has reported evidence of mass atrocities perpetrated by militias and government armed forces.
According to UNHCR, nine of the top ten refugee hosting countries are developing (low or middle income) countries. This includes the DRC, which despite its own internal displacement crisis, is also hosting large numbers of refugees from CAR, South Sudan and elsewhere. Although only approximately 16 percent of refugees are currently being hosted by highly developed countries, refugees fleeing to some of these countries have been met with xenophobia, hate crimes and government policies raising new legal and physical barriers to their entry.
In keeping with the 1951 Refugee Convention, the international community has both a moral and legal obligation to assist refugees forced to flee their homes because of mass atrocities. We also have a collective responsibility to protect vulnerable populations before they are displaced and dispersed. World Refugee Day should remind us that humanitarian assistance and refugee resettlement are no substitute for investment in conflict prevention and policies that build a state’s capacity to prevent crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide before they occur.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA