The UNHCR categorises the various crisis points around the world as either situations or emergencies. Anyone imagining that a ‘situation’ is by definition manageable is naive. It’s just not (yet) (quite) an emergency. There’s the possibility of at least alleviating the problems, given a hefty dose of luck, and goodwill all round.
Here in Europe, we have a situation. The main issue is not numbers, which are low compared to countries in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America, many of which have significant numbers of internally displaced people as well as influxes of refugees from neighbouring countries. The problem is twofold – how to help those who are already here, and how to help those who are now or who will soon attempt the perilous Mediterranean crossing. For the first group, we need adequate reception and assistance services, especially for those with specific needs (lone children, survivors of violence, for example), we need access to fair and efficient asylum procedures, and support for family reunion and relocation. For the second group, ‘rescue-at-sea operations undertaken by all actors must remain a priority’.
This movement towards Europe continues to take a devastating toll on human life. Since the beginning of 2017, over 2,700 people are believed to have died or gone missing while crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe, with reports of many others perishing en route. These risks do not end once in Europe. Those moving onwards irregularly have reported numerous types of abuse, including being pushed back across borders.https://www.unhcr.org/uk/europe-emergency.html
Venezuela too has a refugee situation. More than 3 million Venezuelans are now living abroad, the vast majority in neighbouring countries in South America. They are fleeing violence, insecurity, lack of food, medicines and essential services. They represent the largest exodus in the recent history of Latin America. Most refugees are families with children, pregnant women, the elderly, those with disabilities.
In Burundi, street protests led to outbreaks of violence after the President announced that he would seem a third term in office. Hundreds of thousands have fled to neighbouring countries. The violence has eased but the political situation remains unresolved, and Burundi faces economic decline, extreme food insecurity, and outbreaks of disease.
The Central African Republic has experienced unrest for many years, with increasing clashes between armed groups since May 2017. 700,000 people are displaced within the Republic, and many others have fled to Cameroon, Chad, DRC or the Republic of Congo.
But the above are merely ‘situations’. Then there are the emergencies.
Nigeria (and its neighbours, Chad, Cameroon and Niger) are facing terrible suffering due to the Boko Haram insurgency. Nearly 2.4 million are displaced in the Lake Chad basin. They are facing human rights violations, sexual and gender-based violence, forced recruitment, suicide bombings, conflict-induced food insecurity and severe malnutrition.
South Sudan has experienced brutal conflict since December 2013. Almost 4 million people have been driven from home, and more than 2.2 million have fled to neighbouring countries. The situation has quickly escalated into a full-blown humanitarian emergency, and displacement in the region is expected to rise until a political solution is found. Most refugees are women and children, and the rainy season brings new problems – floods, food shortages and disease.
In Iraq, more than 3 million have been internally displaced since 2014. More than 1.5 million have taken refuge in the Kurdistan region, where one in four is now a refugee or an internally displaced person.
“We had no choice other than to leave because it was not safe for our children. We left everything – our clothes, our furniture, even our food.”Nafa Jihad, 40, father
The Democratic Republic of Congo seemed to have the chance of peace and stability when its long civil war ended in 2003. But sporadic fighting continued, and since 2016 there has been a new wave of violence. Human rights violations, mutilation, killings, sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention in inhumane conditions have led to 4.5 million being internally displaced, and over 826,000 seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. DRC is also hosting over half a million refugees from the same neighbours.
In Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Middle East, the violence is worsening, and exacerbating poverty and insecurity. Millions are fleeing their homes to escape the conflict. Yemen is facing a humanitarian catastrophe. Without help, many more lives will be lost to violence, treatable illnesses or lack of food, water and shelter.
The Rohingya people, a stateless Muslim minority in Myanmar, have been fleeing violence in increasing numbers since 2017.
At the peak of the crisis, thousands were crossing into Bangladesh daily. Most walked for days through jungles and mountains, or braved dangerous sea voyages across the Bay of Bengal. They arrived exhausted, hungry and sick – in need of international protection and humanitarian assistance.https://www.unhcr.org/uk/rohingya-emergency.html
Most of the refugees are woman and children – more than 40% under 12 – and many others are elderly.
And then there’s Syria. More than 5.6 million have fled since 2011, and millions more are internally displaced. 3.3 million Syrian refugees are in Turkey. In Lebanon, 70% of the refugees live below the poverty line – the figure is 93% in Jordan. Most refugees live in urban areas, not in the big refugee camps.
“Syria is the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time, a continuing cause of suffering for millions which should be garnering a groundswell of support around the world.”Filippo Grandi, UNHCR High Commissioner
This catalogue of misery and despair around the world should put the challenges we in Western Europe face into perspective. For too many it simply encourages the building of literal or metaphorical walls to keep ‘them’ out. But most refugees aren’t clamouring at our borders, they’re fleeing where they can, into neighbouring countries that may be as poor and as unstable as their own, trying to survive however they can. People will continue to flee their homes if their homes are war zones, if they can’t feed their children, if they are persecuted because of their religion, their politics, their sexuality, if they face violence from state or insurgency. We would do the same.
These problems require collective solutions. We can’t, and mustn’t, retreat behind our borders and build bigger walls. We can’t continue to leave it to some of the poorest countries in the world to deal with the fall-out from Western interventions. It just won’t work.
The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created in 1950, during the aftermath of the Second World War, to help millions of Europeans who had fled or lost their homes. We had three years to complete our work and then disband.https://www.unhcr.org/uk/history-of-unhcr.html
They’re still here. 69 years later, there’s more to do than ever.