Turning our backs on refugees demeans us all

One of the tragic ironies of the pandemic is that the number of people crossing borders to look for refuge has fallen

Refugees and migrants make their way in the Mavrovouni camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, March 29, 2021.

Refugees and migrants make their way in the Mavrovouni camp on the island of Lesbos, Greece, March 29, 2021.

REUTERS/Elias Marcou

Understandably, since the beginning of 2020 the eyes of the world have been on first understanding the coronavirus and then rising to the challenge that its devastating effects have presented.

Nevertheless, in a world of limited resources and equally limited ability or willingness to deal with an array of issues, other areas of extreme human suffering are being neglected. World Refugee Day last week was a timely reminder of the continuing hardships of those whose lives have been shattered by wars, civil upheavals or natural disasters that have driven them from their homes and their countries, and who are now coping with the additional distress caused by the pandemic.

Figures rarely lie, and the latest annual Global Trends report released to coincide with World Refugee Day by the UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency, should be a cause of profound concern not only for humanitarian reasons, but also for the political impact of many millions of people uprooted from their homes, forced to live in dire conditions, and in many cases with very little prospect of returning home to live fulfilled lives.

One of the tragic ironies of the pandemic is that the number of people crossing borders to look for refuge has fallen; however, this is not due to improving conditions, but rather because borders are being closed to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Consequently, many are trapped and and have become displaced within their own countries, where their lives are in danger every day as they face violence, persecution and other human rights abuses. Last year the number of forcibly displaced persons reached a record high of 82.4 million, a 4 per cent increase on 2019. Moreover, what are supposed to be a temporary measures to alleviate their situation until things blow over have too often turned into a permanent way of life — one of extreme hardship with little prospect of a brighter future.

The UNHCR report points out that while some long-standing unresolved conflicts continue to hinder any resolution to persistent cases of displaced persons, there are also emerging conflicts and issues, such as climate change, that exacerbate their conditions and result in increasing numbers of those in need of refuge. The picture becomes even bleaker when one takes into account that it is not the developed world with its abundance of resources that is shouldering the lion’s share of responsibility for hosting refugees, but it is actually the developing countries, with their more limited resources and their own social and political challenges, who in 2020 hosted 86 per cent of the world’s refugees.

In light of the venomous debates in Europe and the US about allowing refugees to enter their countries, one could be forgiven for being unaware that 73 per cent of refugees reside in countries that neighbor their country of origin. For instance, 1 in 8 people in Lebanon and 1 in 15 in Jordan are refugees, not to mention that currently on the tiny island of Aruba 1 in 6 are displaced Venezuelans. Moreover, more than two thirds (68 per cent) of all refugees originate from just five countries, which is sad testimony to the failure of the international community to either resolve the conflicts in Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar to make it safe for people to return, or to sufficiently support those countries who are buckling under the additional pressure that comes with hosting refugees.

One of the disingenuous approaches, mainly in the discourse within affluent countries, is aimed at relinquishing such countries’ obligations to the displaced, and deliberately conflates those who have been driven out of their homes with those who are economic migrants. While there is room for a mature discussion about those seeking to better their lives and their contributions to society, this cohort should be completely distinguished from those who, in line with the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, are defined as refugees and must be protected from threats to their life or freedom. Refugees and displaced persons are the tragic outcome of conflicts and natural disasters, and as long as those phenomena exist, people — many of them young children or the elderly and generally vulnerable — will look for refuge. For this reason international law was positioned to protect them, as a reflection of what the international community at the time believed was the responsibility of civilised humanity. Is this no longer the case?

“No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border / when you see the whole city / running as well,” wrote the British poet and writer Warsan Shire, who was born to Somali parents in Kenya. Becoming a refugee or displaced person is not a choice, but is forcibly created by circumstance. If there is any wilful decision in this act, it is the triggering of the most basic of instincts, that of survival, in which case how can we not admire or at least respect and support the decision to flee one’s home or one’s country? The real choice rests with those who cruelly and unlawfully, wilfully or by neglect, push people into this life of despair, and with those in the rest of the international community who turn their backs on them. Worse is when the plight of those in the most acute need of an act of compassion is cynically exploited by those who promote a xenophobic, populist agenda, while portraying them as a menace to their societies.

It is for the international community to take a holistic approach to refugees and displaced people, one that is not afraid to combine a firm moral stand with expediency. This approach should prioritise resettling refugees in their countries of origin as soon as it is absolutely safe to do so, supporting with adequate resources those countries that bear the brunt of hosting refugees, and settling others elsewhere if they so wish. The latter should be done in accordance with an internationally agreed system that enables the absorption and integration of refugees within societies in the developed world to the benefit of both.

Beyond adequate resources, there is also a need for a change in the discourse, to one that educates people and societies about the duties we have towards the less fortunate, about our responsibility to embrace and protect them, and about the huge store of human potential that is lost and the instability that results when we don’t take this approach.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg
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