The Sunday Magazine

The global refugee problem

The scope is staggering. There are more than 50 million refugees and internally displaced people in the world. And it seems we have no idea what to do about it, except to say, don't expect us to take you in. Michael talks to three people: -- Dawn Chatty, Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration and former director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford -- Jennifer Hyndman, Director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University -- Bob Rae, former premier of Ontario and former Liberal MP and foreign affairs critic

Michael and his guests discuss the world's refugee problem, what should, and what can be done about it.

Migrants wait to board a ferry boat from the port of Lampedusa, for Sicily, southern Italy, where they will be sent to other temporary camps based on their legal status, Monday, Oct. 7, 2013. (Luca Bruno/Associated Press)

Forty years ago, the North Vietnamese took Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. The Vietnam War was over, and the North and the South were united as one country. But the waves of people fleeing the country's Communist regime were just beginning.

Over the next five years or so, about a million would take to rickety, overcrowded boats listing about in the South China Sea, searching for refuge. It's estimated that about half of the so-called Vietnamese boat people died before reaching a safe haven. But upwards of 60,000 Vietnamese found new homes in Canada, with the assistance of the government and private sponsors in the late 1970s. Those Vietnamese refugees have since woven themselves into the fabric of Canadian life as doctors, professionals, tradespeople, business owners, parents and citizens.

People take part in a procession in memory of victims of the shipwreck of a migrant boat on the Italian island of Lampedusa Oct. 4, 2013. An estimated 300 people died. (Antonio Parrinello/Reuters)
Times are very different now, and very much the same. Canada, along with many other wealthy western nations, is more suspicious of, and less generous toward, asylum seekers. And hundreds of thousands of desperate people are putting their savings and their lives in the hands of smugglers to sail them across the Mediterranean on unseaworthy vessels overloaded with illicit human cargo.

This time, they're fleeing repressive regimes and strife-torn, impoverished countries like Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Mali and Somalia.

Police officers stand by the bodies of a group of migrants drowned as they tried to reach the shore in Scicli, Italy, Monday, Sept. 30, 2013. The nationalities of the migrants aren't known. (AP)
The voyage from lawless Libya to Italy has been a flight to freedom for some, but this year alone, more than 17-hundred have drowned in the Mediterranean. Most who do survive the crossing aren't exactly receiving a warm welcome in Europe.

According the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, there are more than 50 million refugees and internally displaced people in the world. The situation is worst in Syria, where eight million are internally displaced and nearly four million more have crossed the border and now languish in camps in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan.

The scope of the global refugee problem seems staggering and intractable. And it seems that the world has no idea what to do about it, except to say, don't expect us to take you in. 

Coffins of children are seen alongside coffins of other victims from a shipwreck off Sicily, in a hangar of the Lampedusa airport on Oct. 5, 2013. (Antonio Parrinello/Reuters)
Dawn Chatty is a Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration and the former director of the Refugee Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. She spent several months in Turkey studying the Syrian refugee crisis.

Jennifer Hyndman is the Director of the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University, and she's the co-author of a forthcoming book about the protracted displacement of refugees.

Bob Rae is a former premier of Ontario, and former Member of Parliament and foreign affairs critic for the federal Liberals. He's also a former chairman of the NGO, Forum of Federations. Today, he works in aboriginal and human rights law.


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