Last December, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that 2015 saw record-breaking levels of forced migration; over 60 million individuals were pushed from their homes. Roughly speaking, the number of people subjected to forced migration last year was equivalent to the populations of Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Ohio combined.
Syrian refugees, in images of capsized boats and dead children on the shores of Greece, have captured the world’s attention, bringing media coverage to the plight of forced migrants. But the reality is that the world is paying attention to only one subset of the issue: cross-border refugees. The plight of internally displaced people has gone less noticed, simply because these migrants do not land on our shores.
Refugees who cross international borders to flee violence, persecution, or environmental crisis not only receive the bulk of the world’s attention; they also receive the majority of international assistance dollars. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for example, has budgeted about 80 percent of its overall biennial program budget for 2016–2017 toward refugee-related activities all over the world. The majority of the 60 million intended recipients of UN aid are not technically refugees; they are, rather, “internally displaced persons,” and programs specifically targeted for them receive about 20 percent of the budget. Although emergencies should receive attention, these people are in danger too; they do not have the means or ability to exit the country, and aid groups have the hardest time reaching them within the borders of a sovereign state whose government has mistreated them.
A REFUGEE BY ANY OTHER NAME
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that 38 million people around the world have been forced to flee their homes due to conflict and violence, but have either opted to stay within their country or have not been able to flee to another state. Perhaps the best-known internally displaced people are those in Syria. Rough estimates suggest that there are 6.5 million internally displaced Syrians still within the nation’s borders. Far six million Colombians who have fled their homes during that country’s 40-year conflict, most of whom have fled since 2000 as result of the nation’s war on drugs. At least four million people in Iraq are internally displaced, and in South Sudan, over three million people live in refugee camps as the nation’s civil war drags on. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, about 2.7 million are displaced, also as result of civil wars and continued military actions. And one and a half million Ukrainians are displaced within their own country due to the civil conflict in eastern Ukraine. These numbers represent very large proportions of the total populations of each of these countries. More important, they represent children and parents living in unimaginable conditions far from their homes, jobs, and families, and often without access to adequate food, health care, or shelter from the winter.
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