Playing today: Russia, Japan, Egypt, Senegal, Colombia, Poland
Russia since the late nineteenth century has contributed massively to the forced migration of peoples. From Jews driven out of Tsarist Russia by pogroms, to political refugees from Stalin and his successors, and the displacement of populations due to civil and world wars, Russian refugees have made a significant cultural impact on the countries in which they found sanctuary. Writer Vladimir Nabokov and artist Marc Chagall both fled to Europe and then had to seek safety in the USA as the Nazis took over. In France, Irene Nemirovsky established a successful literary career but was deported to Auschwitz where she was murdered. In recent times, Russia has seen an influx of refugees from Ukraine and from Syria.
In 2011, a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, killing over 15.5k people, causing a serious nuclear accident, and creating over 300k internal refugees.
Japan accepted just 20 asylum seekers last year – despite a record 19,628 applications – drawing accusations that the country is unfairly closing its door on people in genuine need. Since 2010, Japan has granted work permits to asylum seekers with valid visas to work while their refugee claims were reviewed, a change the government says has fuelled a dramatic rise in “bogus” applications from people who are simply seeking work. According to figures released this week, the number of applicants in 2017 rose 80% from a year earlier, when 28 out of almost 11,000 requests were recognised. … Recent changes indicate Japan is getting even tougher. In an attempt to reduce the number of applicants, the government last month started limiting the right to work only to those it regards as genuine asylum seekers. Repeat applicants, and those who fail initial screenings, risk being held in immigration detention centres after their permission to stay in Japan expires.
Eri Ishikawa, head of the Japan Association for Refugees, said the new regulation was part of a wider crackdown on refugees under the conservative prime minister, Shinzo Abe.
Egypt is a destination and transit country for refugees and asylum-seekers, most of whom live in urban areas. According to UNHCR, currently, 208,398 refugees and asylum-seekers of 63 different nationalities are registered with UNHCR Egypt. Over half are from Syria.
But refugees in Egypt also face similar dangers compared to the perils reported from other North African countries. In September 2016, a ship capsized off the Egyptian coast, with more than 400 migrants on board. The boat had Egyptian, Sudanese, Eritrean and Somali migrants on board and was believed to be heading to Italy. 168 migrants were killed. This tragedy, however, did not slow down or stop the flow of refugees trying to make it to Europe. According to Mada Masr, an Egyptian news outlet, Eritrean refugees, for example, are staying in Cairo’s Mohandiseen district, waiting to get on boats to Europe. Eritreans are increasingly using Egypt as a transit country instead of going through Libya.
According to the EU, 7 percent of migrants who came to Europe in 2016 came through Egypt. The UNHCR explains: “limited livelihood opportunities and a lack of prospects for integration, coupled with a loss of hope to be able to return to their country of origin have contributed to the steady rise in the numbers of refugees departing irregularly by sea.”
Dangers lurk not only at sea but also in the desert. Between 2009 and 2014, hundreds of refugees were held hostage by Bedouin tribes in the Sinai. The refugees, coming from countries like Eritrea and Ethiopia, would be abducted to demand bribes of $20,000 to $40,000.
Meanwhile in 2012, Israel constructed a fence on the border with Egypt to keep out African migrants.
2004 marked the beginning of the most significant violent conflict in Senegal’s recent history. The province of Casamance has been seeking independence from the Senegalese government since 1982. Civil unrest came to a head in 2004, with instances of violent conflict being documented well into 2014. The conflict has displaced thousands and taken a serious toll on civilian life. While a ceasefire was signed in 2014, smaller scale fighting continues today, albeit at a much smaller scale. According to the most recent figures, there are an estimated 62,638 internally displaced people (IDP) in and around Senegal as a result of this civil strife. Senegal also hosts refugees from CAR, Ivory Coast, Gambia and Mauritania.
In March 2018, Colombia hosted 277 refugees, 625 asylum-seekers and 11 stateless people. There are 7,671,124 internally displaced people, Colombians who have been forced to flee their homes but have not sought safety in another country, the second highest total worldwide (only Syria has a greater number).
The peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) is being implemented and the former guerrilla group has officially laid down its arms. However, clashes with other armed groups have persisted and forced displacement is expected to continue in some areas.
Whilst refugees from Colombia’s own conflicts have headed to Ecuador, Venezuela or Panama, at least one million people have entered Colombia from Venezuela since President Nicolás Maduro’s government descended into crisis last year.
Later in Refugee Week I will be posting the story of Barbara Szablewski (nee Czerniajew) and her life as a refugee during World War II.
Poland’s history is of invasions and partitions and displacement of peoples. Before Hitler turned on his ally Stalin, they had divided the country up between them, and Poles suffered under both regimes. Some found sanctuary in the UK where many joined the fight against Hitler and after the war settled permanently rather than return to a country which had replaced one tyranny for another.
Poland today, like so many European nations, is resisting the call to welcome refugees. The government has refused to meet the EU’s mandatory refugee quota and take in refugees from the Middle East. The country is one of the most homogeneous in Europe, partly as a result of the Holocaust’s destruction of its Jewish population and the post-war relocation of its large Ukrainian, Belarusian, German and other minorities.
Bishop Tadeusz Pieronek, from the more liberal wing of the Church, told the Rzeczpospolita newspaper that accepting a few hundred asylum seekers isn’t much of a problem for a country of 38 million. “Not accepting refugees practically means resigning from being a Christian,” he said. “I’m ashamed of those who don’t want to do their duty not just as Christians but as human beings.” Critics also point out that Poles were massive beneficiaries of refugee policies in the past when thousands of people fleeing the military regime in the early 1980s were allowed to settle in Western Europe.
But the government, whose top officials are ostentatiously pious and which finds strong backing from the conservative wing of the Church, is no more willing to listen to the admonishments of Rome than of Brussels.