The natural environment, human communities and traditional cultures are collapsing. Extremist leaders, politicians and media are pitting people against one another along cultural identities. Displaced from their homes by the combined effects of climate change, poverty and political violence, caravans and boatloads of desperate people are seeking refuge across state borders. Climate-change induced hurricanes, floods, droughts and biodiversity loss are realities.
In addition to the problems encountered of settling in a host country and attempting to find acceptance by the community of that country, refugees encounter difficulties in finding employment and housing. They have to adapt themselves to new environments, lifestyles, ideas about values and customs, and often to a foreign language. They run the risk of losing their native identity, especially when the culture is oral, and are constantly confronted with a feeling of the inability to participate and belong, a feeling which often leads to cultural rootlessness. Their children often have difficulty accessing schooling and, once admitted, experience problems in adjusting to new languages, teaching styles and standards. These people may also have a higher incidence of nightmares, inability to concentrate in school, and of the various kinds of aggression, withdrawal, and mental breakdown observed in people who have seen horrors which cannot be eradicated from their minds.
For the receiving countries, waves of refugees may cause severe and abrupt changes in the environment. Population densities multiply overnight, traditional land systems are disrupted and markets are disorganized. The presence of refugees may create xenophobia among the permanent residents, stir up prejudice and lead to factions which disagree ideologically with one another.
It has been estimated that between 1900 and 1980, some 250 million people had fled their countries. However, it has been in the past two decades that the number of refugees has been rising out of all proportion. In the early 1970s there were 2.5 million; ten years later this had risen to 10 million; at the start of 1992 there were 17 million, and at the end 18.9 million. These are official figures of the UN Commission for Refugees, which acknowledges that by looser definitions of "refugee" the world total is more like 250 million. And such absolute figures disguise the turnover in refugees. Some resettle quickly, others may resettle but become refugees yet again.
The 1984 figures for unsettled refugees indicate that 10 million people per year are added to the list of refugees. At the present time, it is estimated that one in every 130 people in the world has been forced to flee his or her home, and has become a refugee or a displaced person. More than 19 million refugees living today have been forced abroad, and a further 24 million have been driven from their homes and are "internally displaced" refugees within their own borders, the victims of "ethnic cleansing" and other forms of persecution. Never before have so many been in search of protection and asylum. The main causes of displacement are violent conflict and the chaotic breakdown of civil order. Notable crises include the massive 10 million refugee flow from Bangladesh into India during the 1971 war with Pakistan, the mass flight of refugees from Rwanda (e.g. in 1961) and the 14 million displaced during the partition of India/Pakistan.
Notable new cases from the 1990s of the mass creation of refugees are Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Iraq, Rwanda and the 120,000 aid-dependent Sahrawi refugees who still seek return to Western Saharan territory occupied by Morocco.
By comparison with Asia and Africa, the European refugee problems remains small, yet most European states have registered a 10-fold increase in asylum applications since the fall of communism. The most generous host countries to refugees (ranked according to ratio of refugee population to GNP per capita) in 1992 were: Malawi, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Iran, Kenya, Algeria, Croatia, Germany and Canada. In 1991, Germany accepted a record number of refugees - more than 200,000, comprising two-thirds of refugees entering the EEC/EU. Many came as aspiring immigrants from situations of poverty in Eastern Europe, but since Germany has no provision for legal immigration, they enter under the country's liberal asylum law. However, unable to tolerate indefinitely the average 500,000 refugees which annually arrive, in 1992 Germany offered money to Poland and the Czech Republic to take some of the excess. One of the more recent cases was the million refugees who fled from ethnic killings in Burundi in 1993. Many were being cared for by Tanzanians at the border region, whom they outnumbered 10 to 1. Several thousands had already been killed. Despite being one of the poorest nations in the world and with a recent poor civil-rights record towards its own people, Malawi, its own population a mere 8.5 million, has cared for more than a million refugees from Mozambique since 1986, at an estimated cost of about $25 million from its state budget.
Countries hosting substantial refugee populations in 1992 were Guatemala 222,200; Mexico 361,000; Malawi 1,058,000 (virtually all from Mozambique); Tanzania 292,100 (149,500 from Burundi which have been substantially increased since latest coup); Zaire 392,100 (includes 198,200 from Angola); Ethiopia 431,800 (406,000 from Somalia); Kenya 401,900 (285,000 from Somalia); Croatia 648,000 (all from former Yugoslavia); France 182,000 (46,500 from Turkey); Germany 827,300 (259,000 from former Yugoslavia); UK 100,000 (5,700 from former Yugoslavia); Hungary 112,000; China 288,400 (285,000 from Vietnam); Iran 4,150,700 (2.8 million from Afghanistan, 1.25 million from Iraq); Pakistan 1,629,200 (1,627,000 from Afghanistan); Azerbaijan 246,000 (195,000 from Armenia).
While the idealistic notion of refugees is eventual return to their country of origin, the reality of today's refugee situation is quite grim. Refugees, the majority of whom are indefinitely settled in camps in the receiving country, are people with nothing. They have neither country nor home, culture nor possessions, rights nor much hope for improvement. Where and how they live is dictated to them and eventually even their dignity, self-esteem and individuality are damaged, often irreparably. They are victims and the road to recovery is a very long process.
There is considerable debate, and disagreement, in the professional literature on the question whether the term "refugee", as defined in the 1951 Convention, is adequate for contemporary conditions. The definition there and in the 1967 Protocol does not characterize the majority of forced migrants or disaster victims crossing international borders. Internally displaced people outnumber refugees and are beyond the scope of the international relief system. From a humanitarian standpoint a strict definition of "refugee" is beside the point when faced with the need to care for all persons sent into flight by disaster. Separating out refugees on the basis of political persecution misses the point.