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What is forced migration?

FMO has adopted the definition of ‘forced migration’ promoted by the International Association for the Study of Forced Migration (IASFM) which describes it as ‘a general term that refers to the movements of refugees and internally displaced people (those displaced by conflicts) as well as people displaced by natural or environmental disasters, chemical or nuclear disasters, famine, or development projects.’ FMO views forced migration as a complex, wide-ranging and pervasive set of phenomena. The study of forced migration is multidisciplinary, international, and multisectoral, incorporating academic, practitioner, agency and local perspectives. FMO focuses on three separate, although sometimes simultaneous and inter-related, types of forced migration. These three types are categorized according to their causal factors: conflict, development policies and projects, and disasters.

These three categories of forced migration are often studied by different academic communities; the causes are addressed by different groups of policy-makers, donors and agencies; and the consequences addressed by different governmental, inter-governmental and non-governmental agencies, donors and organizations. FMO attempts to bring together in one place these various groups, approaches and experiences of all forms of forced migration.

Types of Forced Migration

1. Conflict-Induced Displacement

People who are forced to flee their homes for one or more of the following reasons and where the state authorities are unable or unwilling to protect them: armed conflict including civil war; generalized violence; and persecution on the grounds of nationality, race, religion, political opinion or social group.

A large proportion of these displaced people will flee across international borders in search of refuge. Some of them may seek asylum under international law, whereas others may prefer to remain anonymous, perhaps fearing that they may not be granted asylum and will be returned to the country from whence they fled. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been an escalation in the number of armed conflicts around the world. Many of these more recent conflicts have been internal conflicts based on national, ethnic or religious separatist struggles. There has been a large increase in the number of refugees during this period as displacement has increasingly become a strategic tactic often used by all sides in the conflict. Since the end of the Cold War there has also been an even more dramatic increase in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs), who currently far outnumber the world‘s refugee population. In 2010, there were some 11 million refugees and asylum seekers and a further 27.5 million IDPs worldwide.

The most important international organization with responsibility for refugees is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, UNHCR is mandated to provide protection and assistance to refugees. However, one group of refugees do not come under the mandate of UNHCR. These are Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, who come under the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

2. Development-Induced Displacement

These are people who are compelled to move as a result of policies and projects implemented to supposedly enhance ‘development’. Examples of this include large-scale infrastructure projects such as dams, roads, ports, airports; urban clearance initiatives; mining and deforestation; and the introduction of conservation parks/reserves and biosphere projects.

Affected people usually remain within the borders of their home country. Although some are resettled, evidence clearly shows that very few of them are adequately compensated. While there are guidelines on restoration for affected populations produced by some major donors to these types of projects, such as the World Bank, there continues to be inadequate access to compensation. This tends to be the responsibility of host governments, and interventions from outside are often deemed inappropriate.

This is undoubtedly a causal factor in displacement more often than armed conflict, although it often takes place with little recognition, support or assistance from outside the affected population. It disproportionately affects indigenous and ethnic minorities, and the urban or rural poor. It has been estimated that during the 1990s, some 90 to 100 million people around the world were displaced as a result of infrastructural development projects. It has also been reported that, on average, 10 million people a year are displaced by dam projects alone.

3. Disaster-Induced Displacement

This category includes people displaced as a result of natural disasters (floods, volcanoes, landslides, earthquakes), environmental change (deforestation, desertification, land degradation, global warming) and human-made disasters (industrial accidents, radioactivity). Clearly, there is a good deal of overlap between these different types of disaster-induced displacement. For example, the impact of floods and landslides can be greatly exacerbated by deforestation and agricultural activities.

Estimating trends and global figures on people displaced by disaster is even more disputed and problematic than for the other two categories. But there are certainly many millions of people displaced by disasters every year. Several international organizations provide assistance to those affected by disasters, including the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the World Food Programme. Many NGOs (international and local) also provide assistance to affected people.

Types of forced migrants

There are various terms which have been adopted to describe groups affected by forced migration. The meaning of some of these terms is not always self-evident, they are sometimes misleading, and are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Given below are brief descriptions of the main terms used by those researching and working with forced migrants.

Refugees

The term ‘refugee’ has a long history of usage to describe ‘a person who has sought refuge’ in broad and non-specific terms. However, there is also a legal definition of a refugee, which is enshrined in the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Article 1 of the Convention defines a refugee as a person residing outside his or her country of nationality, who is unable or unwilling to return because of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a political social group, or political opinion’. Some 150 of the world‘s 200 or so states have undertaken to protect refugees and not return them to a country where they may be persecuted, by signing the 1951 Refugee Convention and/or its 1967 Protocol.

Those recognized as refugees are better off than other forced migrants, in that they have a clear legal status and are entitled to the protection of the UNHCR. The annual budget for the UNHCR has grown from US$300,000 in its first year to more than US$3.59 billion in 2012 and the agency works in 126 countries (UNHCR, 2012). The vast majority of refugees are in the world‘s poorest countries in Asia and Africa. The global refugee population grew from 2.4 million in 1975 to 14.9 million in 1990.A peak was reached following the end of the Cold War with 18.2 million in 1993. In 2010, there was estimated to be some 10.5 million refugees around the world (UNHCR, 2011) .

Asylum seekers

Asylum seekers are people who have moved across an international border in search of protection under the 1951 Refugee Convention, but whose claim for refugee status has not yet been determined. Annual asylum claims in Western Europe, Australia, Canada and the USA combined rose from some 90,400 in 1983 to 323,050 in 1988 and then peaked at 828,645 in 1992. Applications fell sharply by the mid-1990s but began to steadily rise again towards the end of the decade. By the end of 2004, asylum applications made in these Western countries had again dropped significantly and in 2010 the total number of asylum applications in 44 industrialized countries was estimated at 358,800; the fourth lowest in the past 10 years (UNHCR, 2011).

As the numbers of asylum seekers rose during the 1990s and beyond, there was increasing scepticism from some politicians and the media, particularly in Western states, about the credibility of the claims of many asylum seekers. They have been labelled ‘economic refugees’ and ‘bogus asylum seekers’. Asylum migration is clearly a result of mixed motivations. Most asylum seekers do not come from the world‘s poorest states, however many do come from failed or failing states enduring civil war and with high degrees of human rights abuses and, not surprisingly, significant levels of poverty. However, the number of people who are seeking asylum in Western states comprises a small fraction of the total number displaced around the world.

Internally Displaced Persons

The most widely used definition of internally displaced persons (IDPs) is one presented in a 1992 report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, which identifies them as ‘persons who have been forced to flee their homes suddenly or unexpectedly in large numbers, as a result of armed conflict, internal strife, systematic violations of human rights or natural or man-made disasters, and who are within the territory of their own country.’

Sometimes referred to as ‘internal refugees’, these people are in similar need of protection and assistance as refugees but do not have the same legal and institutional support as those who have managed to cross an international border. There is no specifically-mandated body to provide assistance to IDPs, as there is with refugees. Although they are guaranteed certain basic rights under international humanitarian law (the Geneva Conventions), ensuring these rights are secured is often the responsibility of authorities which were responsible for their displacement in the first place, or ones that are unable or unwilling to do so. The number of IDPs around the world is estimated to have risen from 1.2 million in 1982 to 14 million in 1986. However, it is likely that earlier estimates are woefully low, as little systematic counting was being conducted at the time. Estimates on numbers of IDPs continue to be controversial, due to debate over definitions, and to methodological and practical problems in counting. In 2010 there were an estimated 27.5 million IDPs worldwide (IDMC, 2011). However, statistics on IDPs are a controversial issue and there is no universal agreement.

Development displacees

People who are compelled to move as a result of policies and projects implemented to supposedly enhance ‘development’. These include large-scale infrastructure projects such as dams, roads, ports, airports; urban clearance initiatives; mining and deforestation; and the introduction of conservation parks/reserves and biosphere projects. Affected people usually remain within the borders of their country. People displaced in this way are sometimes also referred to as ‘oustees’, ‘involuntarily displaced’ or ‘involuntarily resettled’.

This is undoubtedly the cause of huge-scale displacement, although it often takes place with little recognition, support or assistance from outside the affected population. It disproportionately affects indigenous and ethnic minorities and the urban or rural poor. It has been estimated that during the 1990s some 90 to 100 million people around the world were displaced as a result of infrastructural development projects.

Environmental and disaster displacees

Sometimes referred to ‘environmental refugees’ or ‘disaster refugees’, in fact most of those displaced by environmental factors or disasters do not leave the borders of their homeland. This category includes people displaced as a result of natural disasters (floods, volcanoes, landslides, earthquakes), environmental change (deforestation, desertification, land degradation, global warming) and human-made disasters (industrial accidents, radioactivity).

Smuggled people

Smuggled migrants are moved illegally for profit. They are partners, however unequal, in a commercial transaction. This is not to say that the practice is not without substantial exploitation and danger. People who think they are being smuggled may run the risk of actually being trafficked (see below). And even if they are not, their personal safety and well-being on their journey and after arrival are not necessarily the smugglers’ top priority. Smuggled migrants may include those who have been forcibly displaced as well as those who have left their homeland in search of better economic and social opportunities. The motivations are often mixed. As the borders to favoured destination countries have become increasingly strengthened to resist the entry of asylum seekers, migrants of all kinds have increasingly drawn upon the services of smugglers.

Trafficked people

These are people who are moved by deception or coercion for the purposes of exploitation. The profit in trafficking people comes not from their movement, but from the sale of their sexual services or labour in the country of destination. The trafficked person may be physically prevented from leaving, or be bound by debt or threat of violence to themselves or their family in their country of origin. Like smuggling, by its very clandestine nature, figures on the number of people being trafficked are extremely difficult to obtain.

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Last updated Jan 27, 2012