First celebrated in 2001, World Refugee Day (WRD) is held annually on 20 June. People around the world seek to raise awareness of the plight of refugees and recognize the contribution of forcibly displaced people. The annual commemoration is marked by events in more than 100 countries, involving government officials, aid workers, celebrities, civilians and the forcibly-displaced themselves.
This year’s WRD is particularly important because the world currently has the highest number of refugees and displaced people since the Second World War — 59.5 million people — and the emergencies that have led to this crisis show no sign of abating. Thus far, the international community has been unable to resolve this growing problem. One reason for this failure is the continued neglect of a key contributor to the crisis — rapid population growth.
Total global population levels have been increasing dramatically, and are expected to increase by a further one billion people every 15 years of this century. Moreover, fertility rates among refugees are often much higher than normal due to a lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services. Population growth impacts the refugee crisis in a number of ways:
1. Population growth can cause the emergencies which create refugees
Population growth, for example, plays a major role in conflict, which is often a result of competition over resources. Larger populations deplete available resources and intensify this competition. Not only do larger populations create greater demand, but they also create more waste, which further limits the availability of resources and increases the likelihood of future emergencies. For example, more people consuming resources leads to increased carbon emissions. This intensifies climate change, which can negatively impact food production and contribute to natural disasters such as floods and storms, which can force people to leave their homes.
2. Population growth can increase the number of refugees and exacerbate suffering
Put simply, high population growth creates greater numbers of people to be displaced during emergencies. It also increases their suffering, both within the context of the emergency and after they have left their countries of origin. This is because high fertility rates in settings where there is insufficient sexual and reproductive health services lead to abnormally high maternal, infant and child mortality rates and to more children being born into extremely difficult conditions.
3. Population growth makes emergencies more difficult to resolve
A rapidly-growing population makes it harder to provide individuals with food, shelter and medicine (exacerbating suffering further). It also means that household, donor and state resources have to be redirected towards basic needs-provision for refugees and away from productive long-term investments that could help prevent or resolve emergencies.
Despite the impact of population growth on the growing global refugee crisis, sexual and reproductive health services — both in emergency settings and for refugees once they have left their homes — are often neglected. It is vital that states address this issue and support the sexual health of refugees, and other people in crisis, if the world is to have any hope of alleviating the growth in refugee numbers worldwide.