The global refugee crisis

REFUGEE“Refugees do not travel in search of economic opportunity but to escape war, persecution, death, torture and rape, and because they do not have a home to go. They are entitled to the protection and assistance of other states under international law, and under shared principles of human decency.”
– Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

A seriously frightening tragedy is unfolding before our eyes. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has just published the report of the global situation of refugees in the year 2015. Titled Global Trends, the report notes that in the year 2015, 63.5 million people were displaced from their homes by war, persecution and human rights abuses than at any time since UNHCR records began. This means that an average of 24 people were forced to flee each minute in last year, four times more than a decade earlier. The report also found that measured against the world’s population of 7.4 billion people, one in every 113 people globally is now either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee – putting them at a level of risk for which UNHCR knows no precedent.

When put in proper perspective, the tally is greater than the population of the United Kingdom – or of Canada, Australia and New Zealand put together. It is made up of 3.2 million people in industrialised countries who, at the end of 2015, were awaiting decisions on asylum, being the largest total UNHCR has ever recorded. The tally also provides that in the total number of displaced persons 40.8 million have been forced to flee their homes, even though they are within the confines of their countries.

Then there are 21.3 million refugees. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, this is the first time in the organisation’s history that the threshold of 60 million displaced persons has been crossed. “More people are being displaced by war and persecution and that’s worrying in itself, but the factors that endanger refugees are multiplying, too. At sea, a frightening number of refugees and migrants are dying each year; on land, people fleeing war are finding their way blocked by closed borders. Closing borders does not solve the problem.”

Three reasons have been adduced for this global situation. The first is the situation of war and conflict, which is responsible for large refugee outflows. Afghanistan and Somalia are examples of countries where conflict have spanned over three decades. Secondly, dramatic new or reignited conflicts are occurring more frequently today. While today’s largest is Syria, wars have broken out in the past five years in countries such as South Sudan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Yemen, and Ukraine. Thousands more people have fled raging gangs and other violence in Central America. The third reason is that the rate at which solutions are being found for the refugee crisis has been falling for the past 25 years.

Three reasons have been adduced for this global situation. The first is the situation of war and conflict, which is responsible for large refugee outflows. Afghanistan and Somalia are examples of countries where conflict have spanned over three decades. Secondly, dramatic new or reignited conflicts are occurring more frequently today. While today’s largest is Syria, wars have broken out in the past five years in countries such as South Sudan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Yemen, and Ukraine. Thousands more people have fled raging gangs and other violence in Central America. The third reason is that the rate at which solutions are being found for the refugee crisis has been falling for the past 25 years.

Quite disturbingly, the report notes that three countries produce half of the world’s refugees: Syria at 4.9 million, Afghanistan at 2.7 million and Somalia at 1.1 million. For internally displaced persons, Colombia has 6.9 million, Syria 6.6 million and Iraq has 4.4 million, making them the countries with the largest numbers. This alone makes majority of the world’s refugees to be found in developing countries in the global south. Turkey happens to be the biggest host country, with 2.5 million refugees. With nearly one refugee for every five citizens, Lebanon hosted more refuges compared to its population than any other country. Distressingly, children made up an astonishing 51 per cent of the world’s refugees in 2015.

Some world leaders, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Pope Francis have been in the forefront of highlighting the plights of refugees. On April 16, 2016 Pope Francis paid a symbolic visit to refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesbos. On his return to the Vatican, he came back with three Syrian Muslim families, 12 members in all, including six children. The pontiff performed this gesture to highlight the tragedy faced by hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking to reach Europe. He rescued Muslims, not Catholics, because his message is that we are all God’s children.

We all remember the heart-breaking picture of the three-year-old Kurdish boy, Aylan Kurdi whose lifeless body was washed up on the beach near a Turkish resort, after two boats carrying 23 people from Turkey and headed for the Greek island of Kos, capsized. The dead included five children – among them Aylan’s five-year-old brother – and one woman, their mother.

To mark the 2016 World Humanitarian Summit, Filippo Grandi published a rousing article titled, “Refugees deserve action and investment, not indifference and cruelty.” He called for a change of attitude in the current global attitude toward refugees. The refugee crisis, he argues, is not just a problem to throw money at, but also an opportunity. “When people think of refugees, certain images come to mind: endless rows of white tents in emergency camps, pop-up clinics and makeshift schools, long lines of people waiting passively to be given food and water. But today, two-thirds of the world’s refugees live in villages, towns and cities.

They have skills, ideas and aspirations, so they have the ability, at least in part, to shape their own destiny.” Refugees can boost the economy of their host countries if they are allowed the chance to improve their circumstances. They may be vulnerable, but they are also tough, resilient and industrious.

Since 2015, more than a million refugees arrived on European shores. However, the reaction in many countries quickly turned to tightening border controls and erecting fences. Public opinion became increasingly alarmed, with some politicians stoking fears and adding to growing tensions. This was not a rational response. Sheltering and supporting people fleeing bombs, bullets, torture and rape is not an act of charity, but a legal and moral obligation prescribed both by international law and by our common humanity. In this light, the frequent denial of legal status and official documents, which give refugees freedom of movement, access to the labour market, education and healthcare by many countries is not the way to go.

Since 2015, more than a million refugees arrived on European shores. However, the reaction in many countries quickly turned to tightening border controls and erecting fences. Public opinion became increasingly alarmed, with some politicians stoking fears and adding to growing tensions. This was not a rational response. Sheltering and supporting people fleeing bombs, bullets, torture and rape is not an act of charity, but a legal and moral obligation prescribed both by international law and by our common humanity.

In this light, the frequent denial of legal status and official documents, which give refugees freedom of movement, access to the labour market, education and healthcare by many countries is not the way to go. This attitude only goes to reinforce the cycle of dependency, poverty and vulnerability, instead of breaking them. It is thus the task of business, trade unions and civil society to lobby their governments and make the case for refugees to be seen as assets instead of burdens. This is a human responsibility and it makes excellent economic sense.

Grandi issues a word of caution to those who show apathy to the cause of refugees. He says: “Ignoring a crisis and then demonizing its victims when they are forced to move is not a proper approach. It is no easy task to deal with the millions of human beings who are forced to seek help and protection, but it is better to face that task head on, with compassion and with practical solutions.

Burying one’s head in the sand won’t solve anything. Allowing people to achieve their potential will.” It is, therefore, high time we collectively worked to improve their welfare by deliberate actions and interventions. Governments, civil society, business leaders, religious bodies and humanitarian organisations all have a role to play. If we can harness all our technical and financial capabilities, we can create a powerful force for change.
• Ojeifo is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Abuja (emmaojeifo@yahoo.com).



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