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How many years do refugees stay in exile?

Xavier Devictor's picture
"The average length of time that refugees spend in camps is 17 years." This cruel statistic has been quoted many times, influencing our perception of refugee crises as never-ending events which are spinning out of control. It has significant implications when deciding the type of aid that is needed, the combination of humanitarian and development support, and the possible responses to the crisis.

But is it true? Not so.

In fact, the "17 year" statistic comes from a 2004 internal UNHCR report, and it was accompanied by many caveats which have been lost along the way. The statistic does not refer to camps, since the overwhelming majority of refugees live outside camps. It is limited to situations of five years or more, so it is an average duration of the longest situations, not of all situations. Most importantly, it refers to the duration of situations, not to the time people have stayed in exile.

Take the situation of Somali refugees in Kenya. Refugees started to arrive massively around 1993, about 23 years ago. Their number now stands at 418,000. But can we say that all 418,000 have been in exile for 23 years?

In fact, forced displacement situations are inherently dynamic. As we see in Figure 1, numbers vary every year: they reflect political and military developments in the country of origin. In fact, a large part of the current total could not have arrived before 2008, i.e. about 6 or 7 years ago.
 
 

Figure 1 Number of Somali refugees in Kenya (UNHCR data)

Along these lines, and using data published by UNHCR as of end-2015, we re-calculated the earliest date at which various cohorts of refugees could have arrived in each situation (see working paper). We then aggregated all situations into a single "global refugee population" and calculated global averages and median durations.

So what are the results?

When we look at the "global refugee population" (See Figure 2), we can now distinguish several distinct episodes of displacement.
 


Figure 2 Number of refugees by year of exile

There is a large cohort of about 8.9 million "recent refugees," who arrived over the last four years. This includes about 4.8 million Syrians, as well as people fleeing from South Sudan (0.7 million), Afghanistan (0.3 million), Ukraine (0.3 million), the Central African Republic (0.3 million), and Pakistan (0.2 million).

Another large cohort, of about 2.2 million, has spent between 5 and 9 years in exile. It includes refugees from Afghanistan (0.5 million), the bulk of the current Somali refugees (0.4 million), and people fleeing from Colombia (0.3 million) and Myanmar (0.2 million).

About 2 million people have been in exile between 10 and 34 years. This includes years during which numbers are relatively low, and two episodes where they are higher, around 14 years ago, with the arrival of about 0.2 million Sudanese refugees, and around 24 and 25 years ago, with the arrival of about 0.1 million Somalis and 0.1 million Eritreans.

Lastly, a large group of refugees has been in exile for 35 to 37 years: these 2.2 million refugees include mainly Afghans, but also about 0.3 million ethnic Chinese who fled into China during the 1979 war with Vietnam. Finally, there are few very protracted situations, up to 55 years, including mainly Western Sahara.

We can now turn to average durations. As of end-2015, the median duration of exile stands at 4 years, i.e. half of the refugees worldwide have spent 4 years or less in exile. The median has fluctuated widely since the end of the Cold War, in 1991, between 4 and 14 years, and it is now at a historical low. By contrast, the mean duration stands at 10.3 years, and has been relatively stable since the late 1990s, between 10 and 15 years.

But this leads to another important finding: trends can be counter-intuitive. In fact, a decline in the average duration of exile is typically not an improvement, but rather the consequence of a degradation of the global situation. The averages increase in years when there are relatively few new refugees, and they drop when large numbers of people flow in, for example in 1993-1994 (with conflicts in Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda), in 1997-1999 (with conflicts in DRC and other parts of Africa), after 2003 (with conflict in Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan), and since 2013 (with the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic).

We also looked at the number of people who have spent more than five years in exile. As of end-2015, this number stands at 6.6 million, and it has been remarkably stable since 1991, at 5 to 7 million throughout most of the period.  For this group, however, the average duration of exile increases over time – largely because of the unresolved situation of Afghan refugees which pushes averages up. It is now well over 20 years.

This short analysis of UNHCR data shows that available refugee data can be used to clarify some important parts of the policy debate. It is important to ensure that this debate is informed by evidence, which can help provide a more nuanced perspective of a complex issue.

A new way to mitigate buyer risk in apparel

Mark Jones's picture
Bangladesh's share of the apparel market is increasing
The Alliance and Accord have been working over the past three years with more than 1,500 factories to help them meet new fire and building safety standards

The China sourcing conundrum
In conversations with U.S. and European retailers and brands, ELEVATE – a company formed in 2013 to support corporate social responsibility – finds that apparel buyers rate diversifying away from China as one of their top three sourcing goals.

This is not to suggest that there is a desire to exit China – which currently holds by far the largest share of global apparel trade, at 41 percent – but rather a need to significantly reduce dependence on product from China, owing to rising costs, factory closures, unenthusiastic second generation family ownership, new attitudes about working in factories, and a perception that China wants to move to higher-value manufacturing. Sourcing and procurement organizations feel uncertain, and uncertainty is not a friend of supply chains.

The problem is that for all its uncertainty, China still has a huge base of factories, a well-developed transport infrastructure, and a comprehensive eco-system that supplies cut-and-sew operations, and management that has matured with years of experience. Even if a buyer would like to give another country an opportunity, many corporate risk managers view certain countries or regions as quite challenging for doing business.

Stitches to Riches? The Potential of Apparel Manufacturing in South Asia


South Asia could seize this opportunity by better meeting requirements – besides competitive costs – that are vital to global buyers. These include: (i) quality, which is influenced by the raw materials used, skill level of the sewing machine operator, and thoroughness of the quality control team; (ii) lead time and reliability, which are greatly affected by the efficiency and availability of transportation networks and customs procedures; and (iii) social compliance and sustainability, which has become central to buyers’ sourcing decisions in response to pressure from corporate social responsibility campaigns by non-governmental organizations, compliance-conscious consumers, and, more recently, the increased number of safety incidents in apparel factories.

Surveys of global buyers show that East Asian apparel manufacturers rank well above South Asian firms along these key dimensions, as noted in a new World Bank report on apparel, jobs, trade, and economic development in South Asia, Stitches to Riches (see table). So, what can South Asia, which now accounts for only 12 percent of global apparel trade, do to become a bigger player? An encouraging recent development is that buyers have started collaborating to facilitate new sourcing possibilities – as the case of Bangladesh illustrates.

What our 10 best read blogs are telling us

Nicholas Charles Lord's picture
 Construction workers from Egypt are building stronger river banks along the Nile river to protect it from erosion. Photo © Dominic Chavez/World Bank

Summer is a time for reflection, for taking stock and seeing what is trending. So far this year, the Jobs Group has published 39 blogs on a wide range of topics. But what blogs have resonated most with our readers? Below you will find our most-read blog posts. In true top ten style, they are presented them in reverse order.

Blog post of the month: Abdul Sattar Edhi – One man can change the world

Sonia Jawaid Shaikh's picture

Each month People, Spaces, Deliberation shares the blog post that generated the most interest and discussion. In July 2016, the featured blog post is "Abdul Sattar Edhi – One man can change the world" by Sonia Jawaid Shaikh.

It is almost impossible to think of a welfare system without state resources and intervention. But one man, Abdul Sattar Edhi, is single-handedly responsible for creating an unparalleled mini-welfare state system within the state of Pakistan.

In the early 1950s, a young Edhi started begging on the streets of Karachi to buy a battered old van to be used as an ambulance. In 2016, the non-profit Edhi Foundation had over 1800 ambulances stationed across Pakistan – all via public donation. Most Pakistanis will call an Edhi ambulance, rather than a private or state run service in case of an emergency. Edhi’s air ambulances were the first responders when an earthquake struck northern Pakistan in 2008. The reach of Edhi services during emergencies also extends to other parts of South Asia such as Nepal after the recent earthquake.

Over the years, Edhi expanded his work across many areas. His foundation runs homes for women, rehabilitation centers, workshops for skills based learning, dispensaries, soup kitchens, orphanages, welfare centers, missing persons services, refugees assistance, animal center, morgues and burial services including graveyards, child adoption services, and homes for mentally challenged across the country. Thousands of Pakistani children have Edhi and his wife Bilquis Edhi as parents on their official documentation. Edhi services are accessible and open to all but devoid of religious and governmental support in any monetary form.

The jobs challenges of urbanization in India and Pakistan

Michael Kugelman's picture
Michael Kugelman, guest blogger, is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.
A busy train station in Mumbai, India. Photo: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank

India and Pakistan are urbanizing at remarkably rapid rates. India’s urban population has increased from less than 20 percent of its overall population in 1951 to more than 30 percent today. In Pakistan, the share of the urban population—well under 20 percent in the 1960s, is more than a third today.

Abdul Sattar Edhi – One man can change the world

Sonia Jawaid Shaikh's picture

It is almost impossible to think of a welfare system without state resources and intervention. But one man, Abdul Sattar Edhi, is single-handedly responsible for creating an unparalleled mini-welfare state system within the state of Pakistan.

In the early 1950s, a young Edhi started begging on the streets of Karachi to buy a battered old van to be used as an ambulance. In 2016, the non-profit Edhi Foundation had over 1800 ambulances stationed across Pakistan – all via public donation. Most Pakistanis will call an Edhi ambulance, rather than a private or state run service in case of an emergency. Edhi’s air ambulances were the first responders when an earthquake struck northern Pakistan in 2008. The reach of Edhi services during emergencies also extends to other parts of South Asia such as Nepal after the recent earthquake.

Over the years, Edhi expanded his work across many areas. His foundation runs homes for women, rehabilitation centers, workshops for skills based learning, dispensaries, soup kitchens, orphanages, welfare centers, missing persons services, refugees assistance, animal center, morgues and burial services including graveyards, child adoption services, and homes for mentally challenged across the country. Thousands of Pakistani children have Edhi and his wife Bilquis Edhi as parents on their official documentation. Edhi services are accessible and open to all but devoid of religious and governmental support in any monetary form.

In Pakistan, more people will trust the Edhi Foundation with their money than the state with their taxes. Donations come in different forms and from many economic strata of the Pakistani society. Many individuals who enter the job market will donate from few rupees to thousands from their first salaries as an initiation to economic and civic life – this pattern continues for many. It is not unusual for children to donate money to Edhi services out of their pocket monies or eidi (money given to children on Eid by their parents and relatives). Edhi single handedly inspired a culture of kindness, giving, volunteering, and civic mindedness in society often marred by economic or political plights.


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