According to an article published yesterday on the BBC, the number of people living as refugees of war or persecution reached historic heights in 2013. A global total approaching 51.2 million people has not been seen since the last World War, and rose by more than 6 million in the last year alone. The UN report helps put this number in perspective: it is equivalent to the entire population of countries like Colombia, Spain, or South Africa.
Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that, for many of these people, their refugee status is becoming permanent, with over 6.3 million refugees in the world considered to be living in protracted situations.
Burma’s Karen minority have lived in camps on the Thai border for more than 20 years, and for many Somali’s in Kenya’s Dadaab camp, there is little hope of returning home any time in the foreseeable future. Afghanis still account for the world’s largest population of refuges: more than 2.5 million. And these numbers don’t even include the world’s 33.3 million internally displaced people, 6.5 million of which live in Syria alone.
The article also points out that, although the total number of refugees in the world has been increasing, the percentage of those populations that we host in the developed world has actually decreased. A decade ago, wealthy nations hosted 30% of refugees seeking asylum. Today, developed countries care for just 14%, leaving developing nations to take on the remaining 86% of the global refugee burden. Displacement is an international problem with major economic and security implications, and we can't expect developing countries to shoulder the costs alone.
All alone, these massive numbers can be difficult to comprehend, but luckily there are a number of awesome resources out there to help break down this crisis. As geographers, we are - surprise! - partial to maps. The Refugee Project is a fantastic interactive tool, showing the movement of the world’s refugees from 1975 – 2012. Not only can you see global trends in where refugees came from and where they sought asylum each year, you can also jump down to a national scale and visualize these movements in terms of total population or percent of population. Additionally, the project provides brief descriptions of all the major refugee crises over the past four decades, with links to more information and their sources.
For a slightly different, more critical look at refugee camps and some of the inherent problems with their design, planning, and architecture, check out Mitchell Sipus’ blog “Humanitarian Space.” He makes some great points about the deep paradoxes of these spaces, and gets us thinking about the types of maps that could help decision-makers and program implementers deliver health services in this difficult context.