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Wars prompt disturbing rise in refugees

By Kathleen Newland, Special to CNN
  • Kyrgyzstan violence has added 100,000 people to rolls of world's refugees
  • Kathleen Newland says the number of displaced people is the highest in about 15 years
  • She says many conflicts, including Afghanistan and Darfur, contribute to problem
  • Newland: World's refugees need more than just survival, they need enduring solution

Editor's note: Kathleen Newland is co-founder of the Migration Policy Institute and directs MPI's refugee protection program. She serves on the Board of the International Rescue Committee and is a former chair of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. The Migration Policy Institute is an independent, nonpartisan think tank in Washington that analyzes U.S. and global immigration policies and trends.

(CNN) -- In just the past week, another 100,000 people have joined the rolls of the world's refugees; they were forced to flee violence in Kyrgyzstan across the border into Uzbekistan.

It is an inauspicious prelude to the observance of World Refugee Day on Sunday. But it is a timely reminder that more than 15 million refugees are looking to the world for help -- first to survive and be safe, and then to find a resolution to their plight.

The number of people forcibly displaced from their homes reached 43 million by the end of 2009, the U.N. Refugee Agency reported this week. That's the highest number since the mid-1990s. About two-thirds are displaced inside their own countries, like the 300,000 Kyrgyz who fled this week but did not manage to cross the border into Uzbekistan.

Camping out with friends or relatives, in schools or warehouses, or in the open air, these "internally displaced people," or IDPs, are not technically refugees. By definition, a refugee has crossed an international border.

But these people have the same needs for protection against harm, humanitarian assistance and, above all, solutions. Increasingly, the same humanitarian agencies charged with helping refugees try to help IDPs as well.

The steadily rising number of displaced reflects a disturbing reversal of the trend of the first half of this decade, which saw refugees returning home at the rate of more than 2 million in 2003, 1 million per year in 2004-2006 and over half a million in 2007 and 2008. But in 2009, only about 250,000 refugees were able to go back to their home countries.

Many of the long-running conflicts that have sent refugees careening across borders show no signs of resolution: Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan (Darfur) and many others are stuck in seemingly intractable conflicts in which none of the combatants can either win or risk laying down their arms. Those who profit from the chaos continue to fund the destruction.

It is profoundly troubling that more than half the world's refugees have been refugees for five years or more -- often, much more. New generations of children are being born and raised in refugee camps, which are a far cry from normal societies. The Dadaab refugee camps, home for nearly 20 years to some 300,000 Somali refugees and smaller numbers of Sudanese and Ethiopians, form the third-largest city in Kenya.

But refugee camps don't tell the full story. A growing portion of the world's refugees (for example the Iraqis who fled to Jordan and Syria) are now staying in urban areas, not in the vast, isolated camps that most of us picture when we think of refugees.

Their geographic dispersal into urban areas in some cases complicates the ability of international rescue organizations to help them, although it may increase their ability to help themselves.

The picture is not unremittingly negative. The international humanitarian community has gotten much better at responding to emergencies.

The refugees in Uzbekistan are already receiving supplies from a stockpile that the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) prepositioned in Dubai for just this kind of fast-developing crisis. And the International Committee of the Red Cross, perhaps the most nimble international actor in the humanitarian response community, was the first organization to reach southern Kyrgyzstan, on June 16, bearing relief supplies.

See photos of children from Zimbabwe who have crossed the border to South Africa

Closer to home, the United States has opened its doors to more refugees in recent years, reversing a trend seen after September 11, 2001, when refugee inflows plummeted. Nearly 75,000 refugees were resettled in the United States in 2009, out of refugee camps and other settings that offered neither safety nor security, much less the opportunity to rebuild disrupted lives.

Fewer than 1 percent of the world refugees will be resettled to a new country, but for these few, at least, displacement ends.

For the other 99 percent, let us hope that World Refugee Day inspires a commitment to do more than just help them survive. They need an enduring solution, whether it's a permanent welcome from their host countries or a chance to return home to a safe and secure future.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kathleen Newland.