The State of the World's Refugees

alt Hussein Solomon
Published by: Oxford University Press, 2000
ISBN: 10: 019924104X 13: 978-0199241040

Reviewed in Conflict Trends Issue 2 of 2002

The world has changed fundamentally since 1951 when the UNHCR was established with a budget of US$ 300 000 and a staff component of 33 to deal with 400 000 refugees who were homeless in the aftermath of the Second World War. By 1999, the UNHCR budget had surpassed US$ 1 billion and it employed more than 5 000 staff in 120 countries to respond to a worrying population numbering some 22,3 million of which 52,4 percent were refugees. These figures clearly indicate the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis confronting policy-makers. This, then, is a timely publication which examines the development of international refugee law and the establishment of institutions devoted to the protection of refugees and other displaced people over the past 50 years.

The book, however, goes beyond merely dealing reactively with crises generated by forced displacement. What is particularly noteworthy for the conflict resolution practitioner is its proactive stance. This is also noted by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his preface to the book: "Above all, it places humanitarian action in the broader political context and examines the fundamental link between displacement and international peace and security".

The book therefore draws a functional relationship between the changing nature of conflict and the large exodus of refugees from these conflict-ridden states. It notes, for instance: "What distinguished the 1990s from earlier decades was the weakening of central governments in countries that had been shored up by superpower support, and the consequent proliferation of identity-based conflicts, many of which have engaged whole societies in violence. The easy availability and growing power of sophisticated light weaponry has increased the destructiveness of even relatively low-intensity conflict. Insurgent forces now fund many of their efforts by exploiting natural resources in areas under their control, often in collaboration with international criminal organizations. The commercial potential of lucrative, lawless, globalized trade often eclipses whatever political or ideological agenda might originally have propelled them into taking up arms. The profits to be derived from war economies often become the main force perpetuating conflict and an extremely difficult one to reverse." (p. 277). In this situation, too, it is often civilians who are specifically targeted. It is little wonder, then, that in some conflicts, up to 90 percent of all casualties are civilian.

These are extraordinary circumstances that require deep introspection of existing policies to these complex humanitarian emergencies. Moreover, it requires that we respond more creatively to a situation that challenges our collective humanity. As a result, the UNHCR has formed new kinds of strategic partnerships with human rights organisations, military forces, the private sector and a range of other actors. It has also become involved in a number of activities that may previously have been considered beyond its mandate: environmental protection, mine clearance, community development projects and anti-racism campaigns.

These activities all aim to ensure that UNHCR helps refugees, and other displaced people, find solutions that are indeed durable. In the process, this becomes a concrete manifestation of Johan Galtung's notion that sustainable peace only becomes possible where both conditions of negative peace (absence of war) and positive peace (absence of want) are met. This is strongly emphasised in the final paragraph of the book: " Meeting the needs of the world's displaced people both refugees and the internally displaced is much more complex than simply providing short-term security and assistance. It is about addressing the persecution, violence and conflict which bring about displacement in the first place. It is about recognizing the human rights of all men, women and children to enjoy peace, security and dignity without having to flee their homes. This is the task ahead for governments, international organizations and the people of the world in the new millennium". (p. 287). This is definitely a book well worth reading.

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