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Global Crises Compound Refugees' Woes: UN

Ida Wahlstrom

Congolese refugee Kikimba Kambale cares for his daughter as she sleeps on the street in Kampala, Uganda. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that around 1,700 people fleeing violence in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) have sought refuge in Uganda. The Democratic Republic of Congo has one of the highest numbers of IDPs in the world and it is also the site of one of the worst and least recognized humanitarian crises. (AFP/File/Walter Astrada)

WASHINGTON, Oct 8 (OneWorld) - The global financial, food, and fuel crises and the negative impacts of climate change pose a severe threat to the world's 37 million uprooted people, and will likely increase their numbers, warned the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Monday.

"Competition for scarce resources has become an increasingly important factor in provoking and perpetuating violence," said Antonio Guterres,
addressing delegates from the UNHCR's 76-nation governing committee. As
a result, the number of people forced to flee their homes is on the

At the end of 2007, 11.4 million people were living as refugees and 26
million were displaced within their own country -- known as internally
displaced people, or IDPs. 

These latest figures mark the second straight year of increases after a
five-year decline in the number of uprooted people around the world.

The underlying causes for the alarming trend in displacement range
"from multiple new conflict-related emergencies in world hotspots to
bad governance, climate-induced environmental degradation
that increases competition for scarce resources, and extreme price
hikes that have hit the poor the hardest and are generating instability
in many places," said Guterres.

A doubling of world prices of staple foods such as rice and wheat has
had a particular impact on refugees and IDPs, who leave behind most of
their material possessions but also farms, small businesses, or jobs
when they flee conflict or environmental disasters.

This July, hundreds of refugees from Cote d'Ivoire living in Guinea's capital asked to relocate to a United Nations-run refugee camp "to escape their precarious situation in Conakry,
where they found serious difficulties in feeding themselves and finding
accommodation," according to the UNHCR's spokesperson in Guinea.

"We are confronted with a series of interlinked conflicts in an arc of crisis that stretches from Southwest Asia to the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Some of them are deepening, with important implications for global security," said Guterres.

Indeed, this new and complex constellation of violence has directly affected the United Nations' work with refugees and displaced people.

UNHCR funds used to address emergencies more than doubled from 2006
to 2007, and this year's expected $150 million budget for emergencies
marks another significant leap from last year's $87 million.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has one of the highest numbers of
IDPs in the world and it is also the site of one of the worst and least
recognized humanitarian crises.

A group of 83 aid agencies and human rights groups
recently called for immediate action to improve security and
humanitarian assistance for civilians in Congo after renewed fighting
displaced an additional 100,000 people in the eastern part of the

An estimated 1.2 million Congolese have been uprooted by the conflict, which the nonprofit International Rescue Committee has classified "the world's deadliest documented conflict since World War II." 

However, financial constraints and safety precautions preclude
sometimes even the most basic of humanitarian aid from reaching many of
those who've fled their homes.

This has also been the case in Somalia, where 1.1 million people are displaced and almost half the population requires urgent assistance due to ongoing conflict and resource shortages.

In July, the Germany-based charity Bread for the World cut back operations in Somalia and the United Nations Development Program withdrew staff from the country amid rising safety concerns for their employees.

Concluding that "a hungry man is an angry man," Guterres cautioned the
international community can either meet the basic needs of the world's
poor -- many of whom are refugees or IDPs -- or "expect more social and
political turmoil in the years to come."

Climate Refugees a Growing Concern

While conflict has traditionally been known as the primary trigger for displacement, climate change has proven over the last several years its equally immense power to destroy homes and livelihoods.

"Climate change will have serious human repercussions -- in the form
of sea level rise, more frequent and more devastating weather events,
freshwater shortages, disruption of agricultural systems, impaired ecosystem services, and health epidemics -- that are bound to force people to relocate," says Michael Renner of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental think tank based in Washington, DC.

"In China, the Gobi desert expands more than 10,000 square kilometers per year, threatening many villages," explained a report from the United Nations University, an international research and training organization, in 2005. "Oxford-based expert Norman Myers says Morocco, Tunisia, and Libya each lose over 1,000 square kilometers of productive land a year to desertification. In Egypt, half of irrigated croplands suffer from salinization while in Turkey 160,000 square kilometers of farmland is affected by soil erosion," the report added.

All these losses of habitat are forcing hundreds of thousands of rural
people around the world to migrate in search of fertile lands from
which they can gain their livelihood.

And just last month, a series of hurricanes swept through Haiti -- not long ago the scene of widescale, violent protests against rising food prices -- inciting massive flooding and lethal mudslides
that forced hundreds of thousands to abandon their homes. The storms
caused widespread displacement throughout the islands of the Caribbean
and in the U.S. states of Texas and Louisiana.

Many scientists believe the increasing number and intensity of storms in recent years is due in part to global climate change.

Will Economic Crisis Sap Funding?

Compounding the negative repercussions of conflict and climate change,
the U.S. economic crisis -- and its predictably negative fallout
overseas -- threatens to serve a major setback to global humanitarian
relief efforts. 

The United Nations is seeking increased financial assistance from rich nations to help developing countries meet the faltering Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including a 50-percent reduction in extreme poverty
and hunger by 2015, but "the urgent needs of developing nations will
now be the least of the priorities of the United States and other
Western donors," said an Asian delegate at the annual meeting of the UN
General Assembly in late September. 

Just days later, U.S. lawmakers approved an unprecedented $700-billion
economic package in an attempt to shore up confidence in the U.S.
financial system.

By way of comparison, notes food and trade policy analyst Devinder Sharma,
"$600 billion could have wiped out hunger...from the face of the
planet. The additional $900 billion that the United States has spent in
the past one year could have pulled out the world's estimated 2 billion
poor from perpetual poverty -- and that too on a long-term sustainable

UNHCR's Guterres hopes funding to aid the world's 37 million
uprooted people will not dry up in the new economic climate. "I fully
recognize the challenges of the current financial environment and its
impact on national budgets," Guterres said Monday. "At the same time, I
must point out that the resources required to support the 31 million
people we care for are very modest indeed when compared for instance to
the sums being spent -- and it is necessary to do so -- to bring
stability to the international financial system.

"It would be tragic if the funds available to the humanitarian
community as a whole and UNHCR in particular were to decline at the
very time when the demands made upon us are increasing so


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