Overcoming compassion fatigue
JUNE 20 marks World Refugee Day. The day provides the policy makers as well as citizens of all states around the world who enjoy the privilege of being able to live in their homelands to spare a thought and reflect on those unfortunate fellow humans who are forced to flee their own homes for fear of life and liberty – the victims of wars, internal strife and authoritarian regimes. It also offers an opportunity to look beyond one's immediate self-interest and chart a course so that each of us in our own way contribute to making the world a better place to live in.
This year the World Refugee Day is being commemorated at a time when on the one hand the plight of refugees and asylum seekers has reached new heights, while on the other, globally a compassion fatigue appears to have set in. Termed as 'the worst refugee crisis' since World War II, 2014 witnessed a steep growth in the number of people forced to flee their homes with 59.5 million people forcibly displaced, compared to 51.2 million a year earlier. The recent media footage and reports on desperate people escaping violence at home and undertaking perilous journeys across the Gulf of Aden, the Red, Mediterranean and the Andaman Seas, are glaring testimonies of the scale of this humanitarian crisis.
The UN estimates that one in every 122 persons that inhabit the globe is now a refugee, internally displaced, or an asylum seeker. A recent UNHCR report goes on to record that "Were this the population of a country, it would be the world 24th biggest". The UN figures further inform that almost nine out of every ten refugees (86 percent) were in regions and countries considered economically less developed. 25 percent of the total stock is based in what the UN has ranked as Least Developed Countries. Therefore, the global distribution of refugees remains massively distorted away from wealthier nations and towards the poor nations.
The dismal response of the world leaders in facing this humanitarian crisis has deeply disappointed agencies and entities that are engaged in refugee protection. The head of UNHCR, the globally mandated agency for protection of refugees, has lamented "an unchecked slide into an era … of global forced displacement" and the "utter inability of the international community to work together to stop wars and build and preserve peace". He further bemoaned that "there is more and more impunity for those starting conflicts".
Refugee and rights organisations have also been critical of the apathy and antipathy of the world leaders of both developed and developing worlds. In a report titled "The Global Refugee Crisis: the Conspiracy of Neglect" released days ago, Amnesty International has accused the world leaders of "condemning millions of refugees to an unbearable existence and thousands to death by failing to provide essential humanitarian protection". The organisation held governments responsible for pursuing "selfish political interest instead of showing basic human compassion". Terming the governments' response as 'shameful failure', it suggested "a radical overhaul of the policy and practice to create a coherent and comprehensive global strategy".
Foremost among them was calling on the states "to live up to their individual legal obligations and renew their commitment to international responsibility-sharing". The Amnesty's usage of the term 'responsibility-sharing' in place of the commonly used phrase 'burden-sharing' is noteworthy. It makes the states liable and accountable, replacing the voluntariness that is associated with the concept of burden-sharing'.
Among the measures proposed by Amnesty is the commitment by the states to collectively resettle one million refugees within the next four years; creation of a global refugee fund that will fulfill the UN humanitarian appeals for refugee crisis and provide financial crisis to countries hosting large numbers of refugees; the ratification of the international refugee instruments, and putting in place 'fair domestic systems to assess refugee claims and guarantee that refugees have access to basic services such as education and healthcare'.
The above recommendations merit due consideration and endorsement by all states. Policy makers of developed and developing countries need to take them in proper stride and act on them. Onus also lies on the civil society organisations to exhort governments to view refugee, asylum and displacement cases from a humanitarian lens as deserved, and not through the security lens, as has often been the case.
Upholding the spirit of humanitarianism, we urge the Bangladesh government to review its Rohingya refugee policy, to robustly engage with the international community to compel Mynamar to create enabling conditions for the refugees to return, to refrain from taking new measures that may further jeopardise the interests of registered Rohingya refugees and asylum seekers including the ones undocumented, to develop a strategy for re-integration of the camp-based Urdu-speaking Bangladeshi citizens, to ensure effective rehabilitation of the returnee refugees and the internally displaced people of the hill districts, to frame a national refugee law which is a constitutional requirement and to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The writer teaches International Relations and coordinates the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, University of Dhaka. He writes and researches on rights and migration issues.