20 June was World Refugee Day. In this respect, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) highlighted that the number of refugees around the world as a result of increasing global conflicts and civil wars reached a record level.
According to data collected by UNHCR, the number of refugees has reached 60 million in 2014 compared to 51 million in 2013, a significant 17.6% increase. Of these some 38 million are displaced within their own countries. The UNHCR statistics also reveal that over half of the world’s refugees are children. In fact, across the world, 1 out of every 122 persons is a displaced refugee.
Syria has overtaken Afghanistan as the largest source of refugees with over 11 million people fleeing the war-torn country. Owing to an unending series of conflicts, Afghanistan had been the leading source of refugees for 30 years. According to UNHCR, after four years of civil war, there were some 3.9 million Syrian refugees in 107 countries last year. The human trauma of this mass dispersion of a people is tremendous. Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbour, has become the largest refugee host with about 1.6 million refugees. The refugee problem is not expected to improve in 2015 owing to the multiplication of new poles of conflict and the clear signs that the civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya or Yemen and the armed violence in Burundi, Nigeria and elsewhere continue unabated. The unending conflicts in the Middle East and in Africa have inflated the number of refugees with the result that the world is facing the worst refugee crisis since World War II. These are staggering refugee statistics.
The scale of the refugee problem facing the world and humanity requires a more substantive response from the international community than half-hearted measures such as for example targeting those who run a lucrative business out of ferrying refugees and irregular migrants across the Mediterranean instead of addressing the core problem of bringing peace and stability in the war affected countries. The multiplicity of conflicts and wars and the inability of the international community to work together to stop wars and end conflicts have fuelled the continuous surge of refugees. It is clear that the means to cope with such a colossal problem are grossly inadequate.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Gutteres aptly summarised the extremely serious situation when he stated last week that ‘with huge shortages of funding and wide gaps in the global regime for protecting victims of war, people in need of compassion, aid and refuge are being abandoned’. This inadequacy of commensurate resources to tackle the growing refugee problem and the fact that there seems to be no end to the wars and conflicts, in particularly the Middle East and Africa, are swelling the overflow of refugees towards countries offering better prospects. Desperate to seek a stable and better future for themselves and their families refugees risk being ferried across the Mediterranean to Europe in overloaded boats in spite of hundreds of deaths in recent months.
Putting people first
The world is therefore facing a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions in the post World War II period. In the face of the building paranoia vis-à-vis refugees especially in Europe but also in Asia in respect of refugees from Myanmar and the anti immigration rhetoric by the right wing forces, the world must remember that most refugees long to go back home to their countries once there is peace and security. Like all of us they share the same strong emotions that ‘there is no better place than home’ The finality of all government and society’s policies and actions must remain the welfare and well-being of people and humanity at large. This fundamental human credo must override all considerations including rabidly parochial ones.
The present Greek-EU mano a mano is a case in point. Amidst the high-handed diktats on financial disciplines and political arm-twisting in respect of the Greek financial crisis and bailout package, the European leaders and the IMF must gauge the pervasive discontent in Greece which underpins the cheeky brinkmanship of the young Greek leadership. Their stance not to be press-ganged into a continuous cycle of severe austerity imposed by its European creditors and to seek flexibility stems from a desire to allay and not increase the hardships endured by the Greeks during the last five years. It is a difficult balance to strike without provoking the ire of the Greeks. Will the high priests of financial rigour relent to accommodate and provide some respite to the dire distress of the people bearing in mind the damaging dynamics of not broking a deal?
If the well-being of people is to remain at the centre of civilisation, it is crucial that the international community puts more emphasis on finding urgent and sustainable solutions to the distressful human dimension of the refugee problem. Unless the response in terms of resources and long-term solutions is commensurate to the scale of the human crisis faced by the refugees, the world will bear a big share of responsibility in the enduring human suffering and its appalling consequences. It should be clear that the policy of tightly guarding the coasts of southern Europe, Asia or Australia by an armada of coast guards and patrol boats to deter the clandestine ferrying of boatloads of refugees is neither a human nor a sustainable solution for such a major international problem.
Operation Mare Nostrum
There are already chinks in the policy of Fortress Europe as the southern European states such as Italy, Greece and Spain are made to bear the brunt of the arrival of refugees and asylum seekers on their shores. In the first seven months of 2014, more than 87,000 people arrived in Italy by sea mainly from Eritrea and Syria. In October 2013, the Italian government launched the Mare Nostrum operation and rescued more than 100,000 hapless boat people. The number of applications of asylum seekers in the EU in 2014 has increased significantly to 626,000 compared to the 431,000 in 2013. Syrians represent 20% of the 2014 figure followed by Afghans and Eritreans. A quarter is under 18 years of age.
Austerity measures, xenophobia and intolerance have led EU states to curb illegal entry through tighter border controls, detention and penalization of illegal migrants. In spite of the Schengen rules of free movement of people, neighbouring EU states have stepped up border controls and turned away foreign migrants leaving them stranded near the border in northern Italy. As a consequence, Italy has called for a change in EU asylum rules (the so-called Dublin regulations) which assign most of the asylum seekers to the country they first enter and asked the EU countries to show solidarity. They argue that the international community, which helped topple the Gaddafi regime in 2011, has a responsibility for the chaos in Libya which has opened the way for hundreds of thousands of migrants to cross by boat to southern Italy. It will be recalled that the fall of the regime was helped by a no fly zone over Libyan airspace decreed by a UN Security Council in March 2011 followed by air strikes by the French, British and Canadian air forces, a British naval blockade by the British navy and cruise missile attacks by US warships and a British submarine.
Arab Spring, intolerance and moral obligation
The continuing war in Iraq, the Arab Spring triggered civil wars in inter alia Syria, Libya and Yemen as well as intolerance, bigotry and persecution of minorities such as the Yazidis, the Kurds or the Middle East Christians some of whom practice the earliest forms of Christianity have fuelled the large exodus of refugees from the war-torn areas. Undemocratic regimes in some African countries such as, for example, in Burundi where the President is seeking a contested third presidential mandate or the Boko Haram threat in Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon have led to internal conflicts which have also contributed to the flow of refugees from Africa.
Nothing short of a Marshall Plan is required to address the immensity and scale of the present refugee problem. As significant resources and effort will be required, the countries such as those of the EU, NATO, the US or Turkey which have an important share of responsibility in the insecure civil war situation in countries which are major sources of refugees in the world such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, etc., have a moral obligation to help substantively in finding lasting solutions to stem the flow of refugees and assure their resettlement. They also have a moral obligation to accept a more significant number of refugees in their own countries.
Cogent efforts to initiate a process to put an end to the conflicts and create the necessary conditions of peace and stability in these countries will go a long way to bring the refugees back to their home countries. The international financial crisis has made countries averse to committing financial resources to issues which do not serve their core interests. However, the underlying human crisis of the refugee problem is such that this is not the time for procrastination but to show moral courage and character. More importantly those countries that harnessed billions of dollars to topple dictators for their geopolitical and national interests and usher instability can surely commit a fraction of the resources used in the war effort, to bring peace and the conditions necessary for the refugees to return to their homeland.
Having tens of millions of refugees including women and children displaced as collateral victims by acts of geopolitical expediency in makeshift refugee camps and forced to live in precarious and tenuous conditions for years through no fault of theirs is not a sustainable prospect acceptable to the civilized world. They deserve to return to their countries and enjoy the safe haven of their homes again.
I had a family, friends and a home
War destroyed all
I am a refugee without a home
I seek to go home after all
To happiness again
* Published in print edition on 26 June 2015