Thursday, January 15, 2015

Protracted Refugees

What is protracted displacement?

Protracted displacement is the prolonged (lasting more than five years) displacement of refugee populations.  Initially, the term applied only to populations of 25,000 or more, but the UNHCR has since amended their definition by removing that criteria (Loescher & Milner 2012).  The average length of time of displacement for protracted refugees is now almost 20 years (Loescher & Milner 2012).  As of 2009, 30 major situations of protracted refugee displacement were identified worldwide, although these did not include internally displaced populations (Loescher & Milner 2012).

In these circumstances, the displacement is no longer in the acute emergency phase, but there are no foreseeable resolutions or plans to address the issue (Loescher & Milner 2012).  One of the criticisms of the Sphere Standards has been their focus on dealing with the acute phase of an emergency involving displacement without including policies, guidelines or strategies for the long-term (Dunham 2014).

There are many examples of protracted displacement around the world, one of which I have personally witnessed.  While in Ghana working for a mobile eye clinic, I visited a Liberian refugee camp.  I was shocked to hear that some of them had been there for roughly 20 years.  Listening to their stories was incredibly humbling.  One lady who had been a politician in Liberia told me about how she was forced to walk through the desert while looking up at the sky for days at gun point.  They had taken her away from her husband and children and had no idea where they were.  The sun damage to her eyes resulted in cataracts that badly affected her vision.  When she finally escaped and reached the refugee camp in Ghana, the eye clinic that I was working with removed her cataracts and gave her a job as their local representative in the camp.  She had not returned to Liberia since, which had been around 18 years at the time I spoke to her in 2009.  She was still too afraid and she had no idea what had happened to her husband and children.

Ghana is not the only place where Liberians have remained in refuge since the civil conflicts that plagued their nation from1989-1996 and 1999-2003.  According to the UNHCR, there are still 62,000 Liberian refugees in protracted displacement across West Africa including Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea and Sierra Leone in addition to Ghana (The PRS Project 2012).

I was also interested to see that in 2005, there were 48,000 refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in Burundi and 59,000 from the DRC housed in the Congo, there were also 98,000 and 45,000 refugees from Angola and the Sudan respectively who has actually fled to and were residing in the DRC (UNHCR 2006).  In my opinion, this highlights the struggle of refugees in regions like Africa and the Middle East, where there are so many volatile situations.  With limited options, refugees who do not have the resources to travel to a safer location further away, can end up fleeing to another country that is or may become plagued by conflict as well.


Dunham J 2014, Health Aspects of Disaster, Course study guide, University of Queensland, Brisbane.

Loescher G & Milner J 2012, Protracted Refugee Situations, Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford University, Oxford, viewed 13 January 2015, <>.

The PRS Project 2012, Liberians (in Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, Ghana, and Sierra Leone), Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford University, Oxford, viewed 13 January 2015, <>.

UNHCR 2006, The State of The World's Refugees 2006: Human Displacement in the New Millennium, Oxford University Press, Oxford, viewed 13 January 2015, <>.


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