Refugee. Although the word is relatively new, appearing in the English language for the first time circa late 17th century, its story is as old as time itself. It is a story writ large on page after page of human history—a dominant, ever-present leitmotif of our pre-history, a force that has fundamentally dictated our evolution as a species.
Today, in a world that is inhabited by considerably more souls and, therefore, able to offer considerably less space, this word is too often followed by another: crisis.
According to UNHCR’s 2008 Global Trends report, the number of forcibly displaced people around the world in 2008 was 42 million, of whom 15.2 million were refugees. The number increased to 68.5 million in 2017, of whom nearly 25.4 million were refugees, more than half of whom were under the age of 18, according to the UNHCR 2017 Global Trends report. This means that over a span of nearly 10 years between 2008 and 2017, 10.2 million people had to flee their homeland because of war, violence, or, as we saw in the case of the Rohingyas, persecution.
Most of these refugees who were forced to escape oppressive regimes, failed states, economic collapses, and natural disasters seek shelter in neighbouring countries—mostly other low-income countries—creating immeasurable humanitarian, economic, political and social pressure on the host countries. According to data released by UNHCR in 2017, it is the developing regions that host 84 percent of the world’s refugees.
Bangladesh too is facing many challenges in hosting over a million Rohingya refugees. More than half these refugees—around 723,000 according to UNHCR—fled to Bangladesh since August 2017 alone. They were lucky to escape persecution at the hands of the Myanmar military, since escalation of another bout of ethnic violence in August 2017. Although Bangladesh played an exemplary role in hosting such a large displaced population, the latter’s protracted stay in the country and the looming uncertainty about their resettlement are adding further pressure on the country’s economy. According to an UNHCR official, as of March 2019, Bangladesh has received only 14 percent of the USD 920 million, appealed through the third Joint Response Plan (JRP), needed to address the Rohingya crisis.
In addition to economic, social and political challenges, Bangladesh is facing major environmental threats as a result of hosting Rohingya refugees. According to a UNDP report, almost 4,300 acres of hills and forests were levelled in Ukhia and Teknaf alone, to make room for temporary accommodation and for cooking fuel for the Rohingyas. Leaving aside the threat this poses to the area’s ecological balance, such indiscriminate deforestation and exfoliation also exponentially increase the risk of landslides, making the refugees more vulnerable to large-scale disasters.
According to a Reuters report, Colombian President Ivan Duque Marquez said in September 2018 that Venezuelan refugees cost his country nearly 0.5 percent of its gross domestic product per year. Colombia, which shares a 2,219km border with Venezuela, is one of the largest recipients of the three million Venezuelans who have fled their country in recent years in the wake of an economic collapse and escalation of political violence.
Turkey, hosting nearly four million refugees as of August 2018, has already spent USD 33 billion for Syrian refugees. The sheer scale of the migration of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries is adding more pressure to the already stressed economy of Turkey, which shoulders a big chunk of the expenditure on refugees. As a result, the country has had to impose more stringent border control measures. In 2018 alone, more than 430,000 refugees were prevented from entering the country, according to a report published by Xinhuanet.
Turkey, however, is not the only country to have tightened its policies. Some European countries have imposed arbitrary border control measures—often leaving refugees stranded on the seas or under the open sky to fend for themselves without recourse or resource.
Italy, for instance, closed its ports to refugees last year, turning away thousands. According to a Doctors Without Borders report, between July 2018 and June 2019, at least 10,000 have been forcibly returned to Libya by Italy, while another 1,151, including children, died on the seas.
Macedonia has closed its borders to refugees from Afghanistan and is only allowing Syrian and Iraqi asylum-seekers to enter its territory. The country had in the past completely sealed off its border with Greece to bar displaced communities from crossing over to other Balkan countries through its territory.
Other European countries are facing immense pressure from their own citizens to limit the influx. For instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government had to face people’s wrath for its accommodative asylum and refugee policies. The results of the “Deutschlandtrend” poll conducted last year, commissioned by German broadcaster ARD, showed that 80 percent of the German population responded by saying that they were “somewhat” or “completely” dissatisfied with the performance of the government. Amidst increasing pressure, the German chancellor had to tighten border control measures. Merkel’s popularity also took a dive due to internal tensions simmering over asylum and refugee issues.
While international bodies like UNHCR, Oxfam International, WarChild International, along with many developed countries, donor agencies, and international NGOs scramble desperately to provide the humanitarian support that the refugees so badly need, the global community must ask itself: is enough being done?
Humanitarian aid, logistical support and funds to shelter the refugees are essentially stopgap measures which do not address the root causes that push refugees to flee their homelands. They do not answer the problems of exploitative regimes, terrorism, war, and economic collapse.
People living in stable, developed economies hardly ever seek refuge elsewhere. Looking at the 2017 demography of refugees, we can see that among the top five countries contributing to refugee crises are Syrian Arab Republic (6.3m), Afghanistan (2.6m), South Sudan (2.4m), Myanmar (1.2m) and Somalia (0.9m)—all low-income countries characterised by exploitative institutions and violence.
The Global Compact on Refugees, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 17, 2018, focuses on (among other things) the need to “support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity” of the refugees.
According to a UNHCR report titled “From Commitment to Action: Highlights of Progress Towards Comprehensive Refugee Responses Since the Adoption of the New York Declaration,” “there have been some promising developments that hold the promise of future success in this area [Objective Four: Supporting conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity],” which includes supporting conditions in Somalia so that the Somalians can go back to their own land and reiteration of determination to address root causes of refugee situations.
Tenuous progress, but we must take our wins where we can.
Tasneem Tayeb works for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is @TayebTasneem.
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