Refugees: A global crisis that defies solutions

The countries most involved in the refugee crisis have sharp political divisions.
Sunday 29/04/2018
Invisible plight. Somali refugees wait to be flown to Kismayo in Somalia at the airstrip of Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, last December. (AP)
Invisible plight. Somali refugees wait to be flown to Kismayo in Somalia at the airstrip of Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya, last December. (AP)

Talking about the world’s worst refugee crisis since the second world war, Pope Francis routinely complains about the “globalisation of indifference.” The United Nations’ top refugee official, Filippo Grandi, notes the onset of “donation fatigue.” For David Miliband, of the International Rescue Committee, dealing with more than 66 million people driven from their homes is “a test of our humanity.”

Some countries have fared better on that test than others but, almost everywhere, the idea that there can be short-term solutions to refugee emergencies has proved illusory. “The average stay of a refugee in a foreign country these days is maybe 15 to 20 years,” Grandi said in a recent US television interview. “This is the nature of the crisis today.”

That goes along with fears that the protracted presence of foreigners fosters the growth of a semi-permanent underclass of people who are often banned from working while waiting for asylum requests to be processed or for an end to the violence and repression that drove them from their homes in the first place. The situation continues to be dire in Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan, the three countries that accounted for the bulk of displaced people in the past two decades.

The situation appears equally bleak for the victims of what the United Nations has called a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” of the Muslim Rohingya in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar. Since August, when the Myanmar military began an anti-Rohingya campaign, scores of Rohingya villages were burned and an estimated 655,000 refugees poured across the border into Bangladesh. Most live in miserable conditions in makeshift camps and settlements.

These conditions provide breeding grounds for radicalisation, criminals and traffickers, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council in September.

While the Myanmar government has announced plans to repatriate refugees, there is deep scepticism this will happen. What’s more likely is that areas along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border will turn into “protracted refugee situations.”

That is the term used by the UN refugee agency when at least 25,000 refugees of the same nationality have been stranded in exile in a host country for five years or more. The definition applies to most of the world’s refugees. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees lists 33 locations that have “protracted refugee situations.” They are, in effect, warehouses for people who are not allowed to assimilate into the host country.

This was not what international lawyers and humanitarian experts had in mind when they were working out how to shelter and resettle millions of people uprooted by the second world war.

The convention relating to the status of refugees was signed at a UN conference in Geneva in 1951. It was designed to address the problems of Europe. A 1967 protocol ended the geographical limitation, by which mainly Europeans involved in events occurring before January 1, 1951, could apply for refugee status. The convention and its protocol have been adopted by 142 countries.

The countries most involved in the refugee crisis — either as host or donor — have something in common. They have sharp political divisions over refugee policies in particular and immigration in general. Public attitudes in those countries flow from the leadership.

At the extreme end of anti-refugee animus is US President Donald Trump. He has effectively shut the door to Syrian refugees and he has cut the overall number the US plans to admit this year from countries other than Syria to 45,000, the lowest in modern American history.

On the other end of refugee policy from Trump is German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In 2015, she opened the door to more than 1 million refugees, mostly from Syria. She defied predictions that this controversial open-door policy would end her political career, though she did pay a price. In September’s elections, the far-right anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) became the third-biggest party in parliament.

The AfD’s message — that refugees equal Islam, which equals danger — resonates elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Hungary and Poland. Both countries have leaders whose rhetoric echoes that of Trump.

The globalisation of indifference, to use the pope’s words, was pierced on occasion during the 2015 and 2016 rush of refugees towards Europe. This happened when pictures touched hearts in a way statistics and analyses could not. There was the drowned 3-year-old Syrian boy lying face down on a Turkish beach dressed in a red T-shirt and blue shorts. It was a tragedy made visible.

The visibility contrasts with the plight of refugees and displaced people in Africa. The African continent has some of the world’s largest refugee camps but Grandi says “they are invisible.” He adds that “Africa is far away so it is more difficult to make the case for African refugees” when asking for help from rich countries.

Scant attention from the Western media has contributed to this invisibility. The average news consumer could be forgiven for not having heard of Bidi Bidi, a vast camp and settlement in northern Uganda. It holds 285,000 refugees from South Sudan. Other camps are little known in the West: Kenya’s Kakuma (population: 185,000); Tanzania’s Nyarugusu (population: 140,000).

Exhibit A for the failure of the idea that there are short-term solutions to emergency situations is probably Dadaab in Kenya. It was set up in 1991 to accommodate the thousands of Somalis fleeing civil war. It grew larger with successive waves of refugees. Dadaab was the world’s biggest refugee camp, with nearly 250,000 people, until it was relegated to second place by the Rohingyas streaming into Bangladesh.

Most of the children born in Dadaab are third-generation inhabitants of the camp.