Millions Uprooted

Saving Refugees and the Displaced

The twenty-first century will be characterized by the mass movement of people being pushed and pulled within and beyond their borders by conflict, calamity, or opportunity. War and human rights violations are already scattering millions across the world in search of safety. Globalization, with its attributes of economic expansion, unresolved poverty, and enduring insecurity, is prompting many people to leave their homes in search of better lives. Climate change and environmental degradation will further exacerbate such trends. At few times in history have so many people been on the move. The extent of human mobility today is blurring the traditional distinctions between refugees, internally displaced people, and international immigrants. Yet attempts by the international community to devise policies to preempt, govern, or direct these movements in a rational manner have been erratic.

The most perilous of these mass movements are the journeys people make as refugees in search of safety. In 1951, the UN Refugee Convention set out the criteria for assigning refugee status to people (refugee status is accorded to people forced to leave their countries because of persecution or armed conflict), and the Office of UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was established with a mandate to protect and find solutions for refugees. But in the almost six decades since, new patterns of movement, including forms of forced displacement not envisaged by the Refugee Convention, have emerged. A bipolar world in which people fled from communist states, as many Hungarians did in 1956, or escaped repressive military regimes, as did many Chileans fleeing Augusto Pinochet's regime between 1973 and 1976, has given way to a world in which population flows are propelled by a complex combination of interrelated factors. When, for example, a country such as Zimbabwe began to implode, how were the millions of Zimbabweans crossing the border into South Africa in search of a semblance of a decent life be qualified? Initially, most moved because of severe economic or social hardship caused by their country's descent into economic and social chaos, but seldom did they qualify for refugee status or even request asylum. Only later, as conditions deteriorated, did persecution and violence become the main driver of their flight.

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