World must do more to care for refugees
Statistics released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) last week make for grim reading. Close to 80 million people in the world are now displaced, out of which 26 million are classified as refugees. The former number constitutes about 1 percent of humanity. When you dig deeper, things look even bleaker. The number of displaced people has doubled in less than 10 years. Some 68 percent of refugees come from just five countries: Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar. Three of these countries have majority Muslim populations, while 1.1 million Rohingya, who are also Muslim, have fled Myanmar because of what can only be described as genocide.
To make matters worse, there seems to be little prospect of the overwhelming majority of these people ever being able to return to their homes. In the 1990s, an average of 1.5 million people were able to return to their homes each year. However, over the last decade, only 385,000 were able to return on average. UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi deplores the fact that forced displacement is no longer a “short-term, temporary phenomenon.” This renders the situation for people who are forced to flee their homes due to unrest, war, famine, hunger, economic deprivation or a combination of these factors even more hopeless. Palestinians, who have been displaced in several waves since 1948 and have had their land expropriated, are a prime example of the inability of many refugees to return home.
Conflict is on the rise in our world. The list of countries experiencing war seems to be ever-growing, as does the number of fragile states. The likes of Syria, Libya, Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, to mention just a few, spring to mind.
Climate change has also had a huge effect. Vast swaths of Africa and the Middle East suffer from drought. Erratic weather patterns produce downpours that literally flush away people’s homes or, even worse, the tents and makeshift huts of refugee camps. Not to mention what such weather phenomena mean for food security.
Most refugees flee to neighboring countries — 73 percent to be precise. The countries giving shelter to most refugees are not the affluent nations of the OECD, but rather Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda and Colombia. Lebanon and Jordan are good examples of middle-income countries that took in Syrians and Iraqis who were on the run from conflict. Refugees constitute 7.5 percent of Jordan’s population and 22 percent of Lebanon’s. These numbers are based on registered refugees, but many more go unreported. Even before housing the downtrodden, these two countries had and have their own sets of political and economic concerns. They also barely have enough water to sustain their populations.
While many politicians lament the refugee situation, few actually do anything. The EU’s Dublin Regulation means that refugees must be registered at the port of entry to the bloc and so become that country’s problem. This led to horrible scenes of ships being turned away from Italy and Malta, as well as camps on Greek islands where refugees remain stranded living in inhumane conditions.
When German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened her country’s borders to a million refugees in 2015, the enthusiasm of the population was short-lived. The inflow of foreign people with foreign habits was fodder for the far-right Alternative for Germany. This is not only a German phenomenon. Right-wing parties in Italy, France, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden share the skepticism and hate speech of their German counterparts. So it is no wonder that many of Merkel’s colleagues err on the side of caution when looking at her largesse and how it has affected her political career.
The game Greece and Turkey recently played with refugees as their pawns was pitiful, but has to be seen against the backdrop that Europe is not willing to do its bit and give shelter to at least some of these people. This is not just a European phenomenon, as the US president even wants to build a wall to keep “aliens” out.
The coronavirus disease has only made the situation worse, with many borders now closed. The World Health Organization’s hygiene and social distancing guidelines were well thought out, but how can refugees follow them under the cramped conditions they live in, often with inadequate access to water, let alone soap?
Nongovernmental organizations and the UN work hard to alleviate the situation of refugees stranded in camps. But there is only so much they can do unless governments in rich countries around the world support them and take in at least some of the people fleeing conflict, hunger and economic deprivation.
While many politicians lament the refugee situation, few actually do anything.
There is a ray of hope at the local level. For example, the eight largest cities in Switzerland have united in an attempt to take in refugees from Greek camps with a view to emptying them. This was, of course, met with outrage from the more right-wing parties. Now the initiative has been kicked “upstairs” because the federal government has the mandate on migration.
Every year, world leaders speak of their outrage about the plight of refugees on World Refugee Day (June 20). However, very few deeds actually follow on from those nice words. We have to ask ourselves who we are as a people if we are not willing to look after the weakest, who have been left no option but to leave their homes and countries? The situation is especially precarious because 40 percent of them are children. Don’t we have a duty to ensure the world’s young people have a future and to provide them with food, shelter and education?
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist, and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources