In June, For World Refugee Day UNHCR released its new global trends report, which reviews forced migration trends in 2016. The full report is available at: http://www.unhcr.org/globaltrends2016/
For once, there was some positive news here. Their report echoes the Global Report on Internal Displacement 2017, released by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre last month. While UNHCR points to a slight increase in overall displacement, both reports point to slowing rates of forced migration. Total forcibly displaced persons in the world has climbed by only 300,000 to 65.3 million. Excluding asylum seekers, this is what global forced migrants numbers have looked like from 1970 to 2016:
Total Forced Migrants 1970-2014
Source: Adapted from Phil Orchard, A Right to Flee: Refugees, States and the Construction of International Cooperation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).
Refugee numbers, however, have still climbed by about 1.2 million, while IDP numbers have shrunk by 500,000 and they estimate asylum seekers have fallen by 400,000. And these also reflect the overall stock of forced migrants. We are still seeing very high rates of new displacement. Some 10.3 million forced migrants were displaced in 2016. While this does reflect a decline from 12.4 million the year before, it still means 20 people were displaced per minute last year.
Why, then, are we seeing a slowdown in the overall numbers of forced migrants? This is for two reasons. First, rates of return are starting to go up. Voluntary repatriation is one of three ‘durable solutions’ which can end refugee status. Refugee return rates have climbed from 200,000 in 2015 to 500,000 in 2016. But this is still a small amount compared to the early 2000s when a million or more refugees were able to voluntarily repatriate each year.
Source: UNHCR Global Trends in 2016, 26.
At the same time, IDP returns have climbed significantly, with 7 million returning in 2016. This is another positive sign as only 2.3 million IDPs returned the year before.
The report also notes that resettlement of refugees to third countries – mainly in the developed world – had continued to climb in 2016, with 189,300 refugees resettled. 63,000 of them with from Syria, followed by 22,100 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 14,700 from Iraq, and 12,200 from Somalia.
Source: UNHCR, Global Trends in 2016, p.27.
However, UNHCR has already reported a significant decline of resettlement spaces this year– down to 93,200, 43 per cent fewer than in 2016, even while UNHCR has submitted even more cases of refugees who need resettlement.
Overall, therefore, there is certainly some positive news from this report, with declining numbers of forced migrants on a year to year basis and a slow increase of refugee returns, coupled with a much more dramatic increase in IDP returns. At the same time, though, it is unclear if this pattern of returns will continue, and we can also expect that resettlement spaces will be significantly fewer without new political commitments.
Phil Orchard is the Research Director of the APR2P and a Senior Lecturer in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland. He tweets @p_orchard.