Global refugee crisis requires a united response
In just the last few days, refugee issues have made news in several parts of the world. In Lebanon, authorities have frozen residency applications for employees of the UN refugee agency. In Turkey, ahead of June 24 elections, politicians have debated how to best manage the large number of Syrian refugees in the country. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who fled Myanmar expressed concerns about key points in a new agreement between the UN and Myanmar designed to pave the way for the refugees’ return. Italy’s new Interior Minister Matteo Salvini on Sunday refused to allow a ship carrying more than 600 rescued refugees to dock. On any day, a scan of global news usually demonstrates the global and large-scale nature of the modern refugee crisis.
Today, there are 65.6 million people who have been forcibly displaced, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. This includes people displaced within the borders of their country, as well as refugees who flee across state borders. The UNHCR today has 17.2 million refugees under its mandate, but many refugees are not formally registered. Additionally, there are 5.3 million people registered with the UN Relief and Works Agency, which was specifically created to assist Palestinian refugees.
The world today is experiencing “the highest levels of displacement on record,” according to UNHCR. Unfortunately for refugees and internally displaced people, their needs have increased at a time of growing political opposition to providing funding and helping them resettle.
When driven by desperation, migration is like water — when blocked in one place, it will quickly start flowing in other directions. For example, in the Mediterranean region, Syrian refugees used a sea route from Turkey to Greece or a land route through the Balkans, with numbers fluctuating when one route became more difficult. When the eastern Mediterranean routes were increasingly blocked, some joined other migrants and refugees fleeing via Libya; as that path has become more treacherous, various migrants and refugees have shifted to fleeing via Morocco.
There is an important legal and humanitarian distinction between economic migrants seeking better prospects and refugees who are fleeing violence and profound personal danger. Under international law, a refugee “is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war, or violence,” according to UNHCR. This distinction seems harsh to many people, given that some economic migrants leave their homes to escape desperate conditions, but the distinction has long been important in ensuring special protections for refugees whose lives are at stake. In some cases, refugees join existing migration paths, mixing together refugees and economic migrants in ways that make it legally and politically difficult to distinguish between them.
War and violent conflict are the primary drivers of refugee flows. While some refugees flee political persecution, the large-scale flows behind today’s crises come from places like Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar, from where refugees must flee in order to protect their lives and their children.
There is an important legal and humanitarian distinction between economic migrants seeking better prospects and refugees who are fleeing violence and profound personal danger
Kelly Boyd Anderson
Africa has the largest overall number of displaced people, closely followed by the Middle East. Syria is easily the largest recent contributor to refugee flows and the only country where more than half of the population is displaced — either internally or in other countries. Other countries with very significant displaced populations, according to UNHCR data from 2016, include Colombia, Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Nigeria, Ukraine and Yemen.
The countries to which refugees first flee bear the greatest burden in providing aid and coping with the political, social and economic consequences of large refugee flows. Today, Turkey hosts the largest overall number of refugees, with 2.9 million, followed by Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Uganda and Ethiopia. However, when the number of refugees is considered relative to the native population, Lebanon comes first, with one in six people in the country a refugee, followed by Jordan and Turkey.
The unprecedented number of refugees and displaced people clearly poses a humanitarian challenge to the world, as leaders and publics must decide if they value assisting the world’s most vulnerable groups. Large refugee flows also pose security issues, as their numbers can disrupt delicate social and political balances in neighboring states. These trends also raise public health and development challenges.
There are solutions, including recognizing the humanity in refugees. More than half of refugees are children. Refugees’ stories are heartbreaking, with tales of fleeing violence, families separated, homes and possessions left behind, traffickers who prey on vulnerable people, and more. Refugees often arrive into communities that are struggling to cope with the influx and can face further violence and discrimination. Most refugees are not allowed to work legally, leaving them dependent on insufficient aid and without the dignity that work offers.
A global response is necessary. If host countries allow refugees to work, it can reduce their dependence on aid and allow them to contribute to local economies. Wealthier states should provide more assistance to help host states cope with refugees’ basic needs, including education for refugee children. The UN is working on a “Global Compact on Refugees” to improve responses, but the current political environment makes this difficult.
In cases where refugees clearly will not be able to return home soon, resettlement for the most vulnerable is an essential way to help host countries and provide refugees with a future. However, rising anti-immigration sentiments in Europe and the United States tend to negatively affect refugees, along with economic migrants. Under President Donald Trump, the US has gone from resettling an average of 90,000 refugees a year to likely around 15,000 in 2018, according to the International Rescue Committee.
Fundamentally, the world needs to work together to address the wars and conflicts that trigger refugee flows. Ending conflicts and creating a safe environment to which refugees can return is the only long-term solution.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch