Three reasons the number of refugees is as high as it is today

The number of refugees and displaced people in today's world is so breathtaking that it takes a while to settle into the mind, Brian Stewart writes. We're talking about 13 million more people than live in all of Canada.

The average amount of time families live in refugee camps is a staggering 17 years

Newly arrived Syrian refugees sit with their received aid and rations while waiting for their tent to be built at the Al-Zaatri refugee camp in the Jordanian city of Mafraq, near the border with Syria, in April 2014. (Muhammad Hamed / Reuters)

One of the more comforting claims in recent years is that the world is a less violent place than the blood-soaked centuries gone by.

But try telling that to the current wave of some 48 million refugees and displaced people from today's wars and conflict zones. Most are now crammed into often squalid and unsafe camps as they wait in increasing desperation for a home, somewhere.

The numbers are so breathtaking that they take a while to settle into the mind. We're talking about 13 million more people than live in all of Canada. 

To break it down: 15 million are "external refugees" who have fled their borders, while another 33.5 million are "internally displaced," and live in camps within their own countries, which are often wracked by violence.

International organizations give every indication of being overwhelmed, and no wonder.

Just compare this 48 million with one of the greatest humanitarian crises in history — when a shattered Europe at the end of the Second World War had to resettle a staggering 16 million displaced persons.

A horrifying number certainly, but only a third as many as we have now.

To make matters worse, the crisis is happening at a time when ever more countries are putting up new barriers and taking in fewer refugees. 

The result is that while over eight million newly displaced refugees are being added annually (equivalent to the population of Quebec), barely one per cent of those seeking asylum are resettled in any given year.

Three reasons why

"The fact that the average amount of time people worldwide are living in displacement is now a staggering 17 years suggest that something is going terribly wrong in how we're dealing with this issue," says Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

According the UN, there are three reasons why continually more humans are being stranded in this netherworld of camps and displacement.

A different kind of refugee? African migrants climb a border fence covered in razor wire during their latest attempt to cross into Spanish territory between Morocco and Spain's north African enclave of Melilla earlier this month. (Jesus Blasco de Avellaneda / Reuters)

First, conflicts are becoming more protracted, some dragging on for decades. There are currently 21 nations in ongoing conflicts with no clear end in sight. Think Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan, the Sudan and Congo.

Second is what the UN calls "the shrinking of humanitarian space" as more conflicts are being waged by non-state forces such as militias, insurgent groups, bands of religious fanatics and bandits who terrorize civilians and aid workers alike.

As fewer rules are respected, even refugee camps are not safe from attack, and aid workers become prime targets. The more terror, the more refugees.

Third, asylum itself is eroding as more countries put up barriers to block the mass movement of desperate people, a list that includes economic migrants and refugees alike as they search for haven alongside each other.

In this climate, the animosity towards refugees by so many people is criticized by the UN with unusual bluntness: "There has been a perceptible rise in racist and xenophobic acts in many nations, sometimes fuelled by politicians and the media."

The Syrian toll

One of the most urgent crisis points is Syria, that modern metaphor for looking the other way.

There are nine million Syrians displaced inside the country, the largest such grouping in the world. On top of this, at least 2.5 million have fled to refugee camps in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and the Kurdish regions in Iraq.

Many refugees have found these larger camps so beset by violence and corruption that they have been forced to escape even these so-called refuges. But to where?

The UN has begged Europeans to help share the Syrian burden, but "pathetically few" have come forward, says Cecilia Malmstrom, the European Union's home affairs chief.

In all, 14 EU nations are refusing any Syrian refugees, often citing pressure from their own ultra-nationalistic parties during hard economic times.

"I would have hoped for stronger political leadership in all countries to stand up to those forces" Malmstrom told the New Zealand Herald.

As for Canada, we're in no position to put on humanitarian airs. Despite frequent expressions of government outrage at the conduct of Bashar al-Assad's regime, Canada has agreed to accept only a mere 1,300 Syrians by the end of 2014, while  Sweden has already taken over 10 times as many, 14,000.

Yes, we did pledge $353 million in humanitarian assistance in the area, certainly a laudable step. But when it comes to giving actual asylum our stand seems to be count us out.

Delusion of help

This is not the place for an inevitably complex debate on Canada's refugee system — which has strong defenders and opponents — but let's keep our refugee intake in context.  Last year Canada pledged to resettle all of 14,500 refugees and other "vulnerable people" from around the world, a total that would not fill an NHL arena.

Private sponsorships from church groups and the like help, but our intake remains more modest than we like to believe.

According to the UN’s lead refugee agency, the UNHCR, Canada has dropped from being second highest on the list of destination countries for refugees in 2008 to 16th out of 44 industrialized countries in 2013. 

Still, the hard fact is that even more generous policies would barely make a dent in the total needs of the 48 million spread around the globe.

And political reality suggests most countries will remain reluctant to house all but a very small minority of those displaced by violence.

Yes we can, and should, launch a global campaign to spend far more to improve the lives of refugees, and to encourage troubled countries to resettle their displaced people.

The core problem, however, remains the amount of violence in too many areas of the world. Those nightmare conflicts from Syria to Somalia to the Congo that never seem to end, and which no one seems able to find the will or means to snuff out.

Until we figure out how to isolate wars and cut off their oxygen — as was done eventually in the Balkans in the 1990s — we will only delude ourselves in thinking our era grows less violent.

Not an easy delusion to maintain as 48 million people call out to us from refugee camps that now seem as much prisons as safe havens.


Brian Stewart

Canada and abroad

Brian Stewart is one of this country's most experienced journalists and foreign correspondents. He sits on the advisory board of Human Rights Watch Canada. He was also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Munk School for Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In almost four decades of reporting, he has covered many of the world's conflicts and reported from 10 war zones, from El Salvador to Beirut and Afghanistan.


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