Their number is now 65.3 million, according to the UNHCR report released on Monday. That’s a 10% increase in one year, and the highest number ever recorded. Every minute, 24 people are displaced around the world. More than half are children. They include refugees, asylum-seekers awaiting decisions, and people displaced within their own countries. Half of the world’s refugees come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia, although as I have noted before, according to the EU which is doing everything it can to keep refugees out, Afghans can now only be considered economic migrants, purely for reasons of expediency. The U.N. says something quite different (as does every NGO). In the world population, 1 in 113 people is currently displaced. Among people displaced within their own borders, even though 6.6 million of them are from Syria, that country only comes in second place, behind Colombia which still has an astonishing 6.9 million internally displaced. Despite what one might think listening to the world news, only 14% are in wealthy countries, with 86% in low- and moderate-income countries. Lebanon has the highest refugee percentage of the population: nearly 1 in 5, while Turkey has the largest absolute number with 2.5 million, followed by Pakistan at 1.6 million, Lebanon at 1.1 million, then Iran at nearly a million. A footnote in the U.N. report tells us this does not even include 1.5 to 2 million undocumented Afghans in Iran, and another million in Pakistan. (That means the 65.3 million figure is undercounts Afghans by 2.5-3 million that the U.N. knows of.) In fact, there are more refugees in Pakistan or Iran than in all of Europe. Germany does not even crack the top ten, though Germany did receive around 442,000 asylum applications in 2015 alone.
And none of these numbers, by the way, include climate migrants. Not yet, anyway.
Just over one million arrived in Europe by sea, while 3,771 people are known to have drowned in the attempt in 2015.
And in other news, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has stopped accepting donations from European governments to protest their hypocritical actions. Also the EU-Turkey deal is already showing signs of collapse, given that a Greek court ruled Turkey is not a safe third country, not all asylum applicants in Greece are getting representation – but more on this in a later post.
The more I read about the worldwide refugee crisis, and especially its impact on Europe, the more certain I become that while the circumstances that force people to flee make a safe life impossible for them in their homelands, the response about how to handle their arrival is a matter of moral choices. We know these are choices that can in many cases be reversed, that accommodations can be made, and that the peoples of the world could band together to solve these problems, if only the will and the generosity were there. How do I know this? Because history has shown us that even at times of far worse crises – namely the Second World War – people did what they could especially when there was no risk to their own safety and security. Iran and Syria, for example, welcomed Polish and other European refugees at that time, and the Western European countries, when they wanted to, welcomed Hungarian an other Eastern European refugees during the Cold War. There were some 60 million displaced people after the Second World War. And similarly, despite great numbers, and poverty, the Greeks welcomed a million ethnic Greek refugees back from Turkey after 1922 and the Treaty of Lausanne, when it was a far significantly higher percentage of the population. Greece’s population was 5.5 million at the time (it is just under 11 million now) and they experienced a net gain of nearly 700,000 in eight years (many ethnic Turks left at the same time). This was a 12% increase in the population. But they made the choice that it was ok, because of the ethnic, linguistic, and religious ties with the refugees.
The equivalent today would be an increase of 1.3 million refugees – which is closer to the number in all of Europe, not just in Greece. So these protestations today that Europe can’t handle this influx have no basis in truth, if history is any guide – and Europe is a lot wealthier and more adaptable than Greece was in the 1920s. And look again at those hosting numbers coming out of Lebanon, Iran, and Pakistan that I cited in the opening paragraph. But sixty years ago, almost all the refugees mentioned above were white, Europeans. We must not overlook the fact that the original Geneva Convention on refugees, in 1951, only pertained to European refugees even though it was a globally ratified U.N. document. Refugees from other parts of the world weren’t even included until 1967.
I have just learned that in Lebanon – where there really is a crisis (around one million Syrians, and that’s not counting the Palestinians who are already there), and nearly one in five people is a refugee, the response has been very different. With public and private funding from Europe, there are now increasing numbers of “double-shift” schools, so that refugee children can be educated along with citizen Lebanese, according to this article by former British PM Gordon Brown. Not only that, but Syrian refugee teachers can be employed to teach in the classrooms. Whose choice this is – whether it was the Lebanese government, the U.N., or the E.U. – can be analyzed later, but what this shows is that with determination, the problem of dehumanization can be addressed even in countries that are not wealthy. And it’s not that radical an idea, if even a moderate Labour politician like Mr. Brown can get behind it with such enthusiasm. (It was Brown whose biggest campaign gaffe, ironically, was referring to a constituent, when he thought his mic was off, as “a bigoted woman” because she had confronted him about her fears of increasing Eastern European immigration to England.)
Which raises the question: if this can be done in Lebanon (and with Jordan and, the article suggests, Turkey to follow), why is it such a hardship to do the same in Germany or the Netherlands or Norway? Not that they are not educating children, but they are dealing with significantly smaller numbers distributed among a much larger population and geographic area, and far more economic resources to work with. Granted, part of the appeal for Europe in such a local education program is that is makes it less likely for people to travel to Europe, which for many Europeans is their primary objective. Then again, if refugees can live a safe and decent life in a neighboring country, where they don’t have to learn a new language and way of life, and don’t have to risk their lives or lose everything they have in a perilous journey, no one can have any objection as long as they are not being warehoused and the local population isn’t being impoverished by the situation (a problem that has been solved elsewhere when the will of the international community was there). Obviously the chief goal is to prevent the kinds of crises that produce refugees and to reach peace settlements so people can return home – peacemaking is something that several commentators have pointed out governments show little interest in these days – but short of that, if local humane spaces can exist for people to flee to, where they not only are safe but won’t be living in stagnation as their lives waste away, then they shouldn’t have to flee so far to survive. Even if you are safe, but you can’t provide for your family and young people can’t get an education – for themselves but also to benefit the rebuilding of their country – you can’t blame anyone for trying to do what they must to find the opportunities they need. With no opportunity to transcend the confines of a refugee camp, it becomes a prison.
For the host countries, if anything, the problem is one of culture and psychology: the tendency of many people towards xenophobia – and some towards outright racism – coupled with real (but in this case irrational and often unwarranted) fears of economic loss. That and, as I have written previously the lack of will on the part of Europe’s leaders to educate their people about the undeniable long-term economic benefits of migration and to set a tone that recognizes that even supposedly monocultural states are and have historically been filed with diverse ethnic populations: Roma, Jews, Basques, Celtic minorities, Muslims, Kurds, while states like Switzerland and Belgium have never claimed to be monocultural. But leaders and parties that have done a poor job of promoting and defending what we in the U.S. call “cultural diversity” (flawed as it may be) start from a position of weakness when their nationalistic political opponents do all they can to whip up fear, anxiety, and the easy defaults of distrust, suspicion, and hatred. At the same time, contributing to a culture of fear and reinforcing often false stereotypes is an easy path to power as well.
Some of the latest thinking challenges whether the idea of the camp is the most desirable option. People such as David Miliband, President of the International Rescue Committee, have suggested that a better alternative is to provide adequate living for refugees within a larger urban area, by providing housing, basic needs, and opportunities for work and education. Why keep people encamped if their needs (and more) can be met in a free urban existence? Of course, that does beg the question of how to also address the needs of the locals in the new country, especially if they are poor, including, for example, how to make enough housing available so that refugees don’t end up displacing locals who can’t afford housing. If people already have fears about competition for jobs, which research shows is short-term and limited to certain social classes, anyone who has been living in a tight or gentrifying real estate market is going to know that a large influx of new tenants is going to put pressure on the market (especially if landlords know that rents are being subsidized by the U.N. and NGOs). This new model that breaks down the walls of the refugee camp concept needs a lot of further research but the burden on the local population has to be taken into account, because the place of first refuge is usually not in a wealthy country – in fact, it is usually in a country where residents are already living precarious lives.
Which brings us to a study in contrasts. In May, the Kenyan government has, just like that, very publicly declared they will be closing down their refugee camps in November. Some 600,000 people in Dadaab and Kakuma camps stand to be displaced, the majority from Somalia (and by the way, less than 1% of the world population of refugees and displaced persons). While this appeared at first to be some kind of brinkmanship to force the international community to provide more support for the costs associated with having a population of the size of, roughly, the U.S. city of Baltimore, the official claim is that it’s a response to the security threat posed by the al-Shabab Islamist guerrillas. When the U.N. countered that that will actually further destabilize the security situation by trying to force the people back to Somalia, the Kenyan government has argued it will force the nations of the world to act more rapidly to stabilize Somalia after all these years of civil war. Aside from the fact that, taken on their face, these are two diametrically opposed predicted outcomes, the main questions in practical terms are: 1) How are they going to move 600,000 people who don’t want to be moved? and 2) Where are they going to go – to live and to work? These are not just able-bodied young adults who can move into fully furnished homes with all the means to support themselves. They are older people and many, many children, who have been living in camps for twenty years or more in some cases. It is not as if there are whole empty blocks in Mogadishu that are waiting for the arrival of a healthy and hale population that is returning from vacation. So how this can be “stabilizing” in any social sense – even if it led to a solution of the political conflict – ignores the reality of sheltering and feeding a massive, and displaced, population. There are also unacknowledged ways that Kenya actually benefits, according to this interesting analysis.
Not that this is any worse or impractical than when France decided it was ok to burn down part of “The Jungle,” the squatter community outside of Calais where refugees wait to find a way to get to England. People who have no safe place to go aren’t staying in refugee camps or squatter communities to be thorns in the side of their host countries. They really don’t have alternatives. Now, I have not been to Calais yet myself, so I am only writing about it based on what I have read and some extraordinary photos from a colleague who was just there (whom I will keep nameless for now out of respect for her privacy). What was most striking to defenders of The Jungle was that the residents, no matter how transient and short-term, had established small shops, restaurants, and other businesses. This is common to refugee camps and squatter settlements, more than you might think. I even saw a computer repair shop among the little vegetable stands in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. But why it should be such a threat that it needs to be destroyed or eradicated is, again, a moral choice, not a practical necessity. After all, there has always been development, and if the will is there, local government or national governments (and even NGOs and the UN) could provide the resources to help turn a dirty plot of land with poor drainage and unsafe health conditions (something I have also witnessed in a squatter camp in Greece in 2008) into a makeshift community. Plywood, latrines, solar cookers, electricity, bedding, medical clinics – these are not extraordinary challenges. After all, the major nations have shown repeatedly this can be done in a matter of weeks for invading and occupying armies. So why not for refugees whom we recognize meet the international legal criteria for protection?
At the same time, over fifty thousand refugees remain stranded in Greece, unable to move on because other countries such as Macedonia have closed their borders. Local Greeks have been helping out, not only as volunteers (especially on the island of Lesbos) but also in paid positions, since there can be jobs in humanitarian work. Locals can be hired to do the kind of work necessary in refugee protection and humanitarian relief. Again, there is the money – maybe not in Greece, but from Western Europe, especially if it’s in their interest to keep refugees in Greece – to pay for decent living conditions, especially if they want to keep people in Greece. There is always the pernicious argument to work against, that showing any kindness to refugees (in the form of decent housing, jobs that pay, good living conditions) becomes an incentive for others to come. Aside from the fact that this does not recognize the central fact that refugees don’t have a choice, it also shows up the larger issue of vast economic inequality and the unwillingness to contribute to decent and safe living conditions for people in their countries of origin. That’s a choice of a different kind, but a choice that the wealthy nations make that has human consequences abroad and at home, wherever that may be.