More than 800,000 people were displaced as refugees across international borders in 2011, the highest number in over a decade. And this year's refugee displacements are expected to closely parallel the 2011 totals, with at least 465,800 Syrian refugees alone already registered or awaiting assistance. Syria, the scene of an armed conflict that has caused tens of thousands of civilian casualties, remains the humanitarian crisis to watch as a new year is poised to begin.
The majority of Syrian refugees have found shelter in four neighboring countries. By late November, Turkey was refuge to more than 123,700 refugees who were registered or awaiting assistance, the Turkish government estimates. Lebanon had at least 103,100 Syrian refugees, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with at least 30,700 more seeking registration. And more than 98,000 Syrian refugees were in Jordan, with nearly 41,000 who had received an appointment for registration. Iraq hosted more than 60,300 Syrian refugees. And tens of thousands more remain unregistered in the region.
Turkey is reportedly near or beyond its capacity to protect refugees, and Jordan's infrastructure is already strained from its significant Iraqi refugee population. The spillover effect on Europe's doorstep in the Eastern Mediterranean, especially Greece and Cyprus, is also growing. Beyond the number of Syrians who have fled the country, Syria's civil war has created 2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), according to a Syria-based humanitarian agency.
Syria's neighbors are being pulled into the conflict in other ways, too. The proximity of the fighting to Turkey has raised fears of escalation. Violence is threatening to spill over into Lebanon and Israel, with Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, seen as interested in regionalizing the conflict. Regional expansion of the conflict would only be expected to create new numbers of IDPs and refugees, adding another precarious development to a region that is already a tinderbox.
Post-Arab Spring, Foreign-Born Workers Trickling Back to Libya
Two years have passed since the onset of the Arab Spring, when widespread anti-government protests drove political change in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya — and sparked extensive unrest throughout the region. And some of Libya's migrant workers (estimated at 1.8 million before the crisis) have begun to trickle back to that country despite continuing volatility there. In fact, as early as November 2011, several dozen Bangladeshi migrants had returned to Libya to work, even as hundreds of thousands of other migrants had fled the violence.
The Libyan civil war that began in February 2011 resulted in the displacement of huge numbers of migrants, with nearly 800,000 fleeing Libya within the first ten months, chiefly to Tunisia and Egypt. Of them, at least 315,000 were third-country nationals (TNCs) — migrant workers or asylum seekers — the vast majority of whom had no means of returning to their countries of origin when clashes began.
Mali and Ivory Coast in Turmoil, Thousands of Sudanese at Risk of Statelessness after Secession
Thousands of people fled Mali in early 2012 following violent clashes between Mali's military and rebel groups in the north, ending in a military coup. Characterized as the worst human-rights crisis in northern Mali in more than two decades, Malians sought refuge in neighboring Niger, Burkina Faso, and Mauritania. Related incidents of violence continued into the fall, with Ansar Dine and other Islamist groups emerging as the central protagonists. Calls by African and some Western political leaders for military intervention have been met with sharp criticism for potentially harmful humanitarian consequences.
In the Ivory Coast, the 2011 presidential election gave way to violence which, in addition to ongoing land conflicts, has caused approximately 24,000 Ivoirians to flee their homes in 2012, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.
And the humanitarian situation in South Sudan remains a difficult one. After Sudan and South Sudan split in a July 2011 independence referendum, the latter has become refuge to more than 200,000 persons who fled not only air and ground attacks in Sudan, but also untenable economic circumstances. Among the many critical issues that remain unresolved, both before and since the transition, have related to the border (Sudan and South Sudan share a 1,200-mile border, but do not agree on demarcation); the installation of a demilitarized border zone after bloody clashes; high Sudanese levies against its southern neighbor for access to the Red Sea oil pipeline; and residency and citizenship issues that include the risk of statelessness for thousands of refugees.
The International Response
One of the prominent humanitarian challenges in 2013 will be boosting Turkey's capacity to offer protection to increasing number of Syrian refugees. UNHCR has been calling on European Union (EU) Member States to ensure access to territory and to asylum procedures; harmonizing approaches to the adjudication of asylum claims; and sharing responsibility among Member States. Other outstanding issues of concern are for Syria's neighbors to keep their borders open to allow Syrians to find refuge there; ensuring that displaced populations are well equipped for the winter; and preventing or preparing for possible spillover of violent and nonviolent conflict into Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq.
In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, EU Member States have provided important financial and logistical support, in particular cooperating with UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in the evacuation of TNCs from Tunisia and Egypt. As of early 2012, several EU Member States also offered resettlement places for 600 refugees from North Africa, and several hundred resettlement places for refugees in Malta (the United States resettled 700 refugees and Australia 100).