Published by the CDA Institute, June 30, 2015
According to the Global Trends Report released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on 18 June 2015, the forcible displacement of people is at the highest level ever recorded. The report indicated that the number of people displaced at the end of 2014 had risen to an alarming 59.5 million compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago.
This massive increase was driven mainly by the war in Syria, which at the end of last year had forced 2.5 million people into becoming refugees and made 6.5 million internally displaced. Major new displacement also occurred in Africa – especially but not exclusively in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. The conflict in Ukraine has also produced new waves of refugees, and the persisting instability in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya, to name but a few, has only further compounded the problem.
The international community’s response to the contemporary refugee crisis has been woefully inadequate.
In addition to these ‘old’ security problems (that is, problems involving violent conflict), new problems have emerged that are already generating significant numbers of refugees, and could get much worse in the future. A case in point is the plight of environmental refugees: people who are forced to flee their countries due to problems associated with climate change. Consider, for instance, the case of Bangladesh; as one of the poorest countries in the world, it is already finding it difficult to cope with the flooding caused by rising sea waters arising from the increase in temperatures. It is estimated that by 2050 the sea will inundate almost 20 percent of Bangladeshi territory and displace about 18 million people.
Why does the refugee crisis matter? At the most obvious level, one can point to the tragic human cost of forcible displacement. Whether we think of human security in the narrow sense (as freedom from fear) or in a broader perspective (freedom from want), it is clear that this is a human insecurity crisis of massive proportions. Even those refugees who are lucky enough to survive their journeys – and many do not, as the recent deaths in the Mediterranean and Southeast Asia attest – often face detention, exploitation and violence perpetrated by human smugglers but also by the authorities of some host countries. Furthermore, many refugees face years if not decades of uncertainty: unable to return home and equally unable to find a stable home elsewhere.
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In a broader perspective, refugee crises also entail the risk of regional instability. This is particularly the case today, when most refugees end up in countries that are already poor or fragile, and where there is the potential for conflict over resources or violence due to changes in the ethnic or religious composition of the country. The UN has expressed concern that the burden of caring for refugees is increasingly falling on the countries with the least resources. Developing countries are host to 86 percent of the world’s refugees, with wealthy countries caring for just 14 percent.
For instance, since the start of the Syrian crisis, refugees from that country have fled into Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Lebanon now hosts more than a million Syrian refugees, meaning that a quarter of its total population is Syrian. The pressure on housing, education and the health system is causing tensions in a country which itself has a recent history of conflict. Social tension is also reflected in Lebanon’s confessional makeup. With most Syrian refugees in Lebanon being Sunnis, the Sunni community has come to represent the largest sect in Lebanon, exacerbating confessional challenges. Several violent incidents have already taken place, and the situation is likely to deteriorate in the coming months. This could further destabilize what is already an extremely complicated, conflict-ridden region. Furthermore, in our interconnected world, such regional instability could easily have global repercussions.
The international community’s response to the contemporary refugee crisis has been woefully inadequate. Particularly disappointing has been the performance of the West. The preferred approach of many Western states to address this problem has been directed at preventing refugees from reaching their borders. For instance, several EU member states have refused to resettle more than a purely symbolic number of migrants that arrive by boat. Instead, their focus is on a hard-to-implement policy of capturing/destroying vessels used by smugglers to bring illegal migrants into Europe. For its part, Australia has a particularly harsh border policy: turning back boats of asylum seekers at sea; forcing asylum seekers to live in detention centres across the Pacific; and guaranteeing they will never be resettled in Australia.
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Canada has been more generous—but has certainly not done all it could to help refugees. Particularly problematic has been the response to the Syrian crisis. While Ottawa has provided hundreds of millions in relief efforts within Syria, its contribution in terms of resettling refugees from that country has been far more modest.
This type of response is deeply problematic from a normative perspective: contrary to explicit commitments to the protection of human rights, the Western community is failing to act decisively to save forcibly displaced people. It is also problematic from a practical point of view: as long as so many severe crises persist across the world, it will be impossible to prevent people from fleeing. Many will continue to take huge risks in the hope of building new lives in the West. They will be ‘aided’ by sophisticated, transnational networks of human traffickers, which are often empowered by a combination of modern technology and tribal loyalty that makes them particularly resilient.
What is to be done? To begin with, Western states – including Canada – need to provide far more material support to poorer countries housing large numbers of migrants. Second, countries that have the capacity to resettle more refugees, and Canada is high on that list, should be prepared to take in far more people displaced by war. It will not be possible to help each and every refugee in the foreseeable future, but far more can be achieved than is currently being done.