DEPUTY EDITOR OF CURRENT AFFAIRS FIONA HUGHES SPEAKS TO UNHCR SPOKESPERSON MARTIN RENTSCH ON THE INTERNATIONAL NATURE OF THE CURRENT CRISIS AND OUTLINES SOME OF THE CONFLICTS THAT MAKE IT SO.
The number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people around the world has topped 65 million. It’s the first time in the United Nation’s history that the number has surpassed 60 million.
Motley spoke to Mr Martin Rentsch, a spokesman for UNHCR National Office in Germany on this increase in numbers. The Geneva Refugee Convention from 1951, is the foundation of the work of the UNHCR and they follow the principles enshrined in it. Per Mr Rentsch, UNHCR strives “ to pursue, improve legislation, international agreements and everything to do with refugee protection to get better protection for people of concern all around the world.”
The reason for the need to provide international protection all around the world can be found in the cause of the increase in refugees. Although media focus has been almost exclusively concerned with Syria and the movement of refugees and migrants to Europe, there are other factors at play in this upsetting increase. Mr Rentsch describes the “reason for the recent increase and the increase over the last years and decades is the many conflicts that we’ve had in the world today.”
He describes the many conflicts as ranging from protracted refugee situations which have been existing for sometimes decades to new crises in Africa and of course Syria and Iraq. It is these new and old crises combined which account for the increase.
“The number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people around the world has topped 65 million.”
A Global Problem:
Refugees are coming from far and wide seeking protection from war, persecution and severe human rights violations. There are many crises and suffering that cause this migration. The conflicts in Afghanistan, North Africa and Yemen are examples of this.
There are three main countries producing refugees as Syria, Iraq and thirdly Afghanistan. In fact, Afghans make up 18 percent of the some 387,000 who arrived on Europe’s shores via the Mediterranean so far this year. In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The United States supporting the Islamic insurgents who resisted the Soviets resulting in a war lasting 10 years. By the 1990s, the Soviets had left, the Americans had lost interest and parts of the country were lawless and chaotic. The Taliban countered Afghanistan’s warlords and imposed order, but they also banned music and forced women to wear head-to-toe coverings with reports of the repression of women and other human rights violations. After the terrorist attacks of September, the 11th 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban. They then established a military presence in the country. In March 2003, the United States launched a war against Iraq diverting attention and resources from Afghanistan. Currently, International interest in Afghanistan wanes and most foreign troops are long gone but for many Afghans, the war is only getting worse. Afghan civilians are increasingly caught in a cycle of violence, as the war has intensified.
- North Africa
African migrants flee a complex web of forces that have uprooted entire generations. No two countries are the same. Nigerians, displaced by the militant insurgent group Boko Haram, and Gambians, escaping a brutal authoritarian government are the most prominent nationalities travelling from Libya to Italy so far this year. In Eritrea, nearly 40,000 migrants fled last year, escaping a government notorious for one of the worst human rights records in the world with some of the violations committed under the government’s authority as potentially constituting crimes against humanity. Its neighbouring state Somalia collapsed in 1991 and has never been rebuilt, with warlords, extreme jihadis, rival parties and foreign soldiers controlling different parts of the country. This has led to decades of armed conflict, and the rise of al-Shabaab rebels throughout the region. The problems driving migration through the northern fold have been festering for decades. But for a short time, world leaders could keep the wave from spilling over into Europe. The route to Europe for those displaced in Africa is through Libya, the so-called “back door” to Europe. The European Union in 2008 cut a deal with the Libyan dictator Gaddafi, agreeing to pay $500 million in exchange for keeping migrants away. Italy later redoubled that deal. Gaddafi received an additional $5 billion over 20 years, a financial package intended to right the wrongs of colonialism, on the condition that he kept a tight grip on the border. Those deals dissolved along with Gaddafi’s iron-clad rule over Libya.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, says more than 100,000 people have fled Yemen since a Saudi Arabian-led coalition began bombing the country in March to drive pro-Iranian Houthi rebels from power. In January 2015, Yemen’s government fell to the Houthis, a predominately Shia Muslim group. This was viewed as a threat to Saudi Arabia and the neighbouring Sunni states, which formed a coalition and began bombing campaigns in the capital. The war has inflicted a devastating toll on 26 million Yemenis struggling to survive in an already impoverished. The United Nations estimates conservatively 6,000 people have been killed, about half of them civilians. It says four-fifths of Yemenis need outside aid. More than half have poor food supply and at least 320,000 children under five are severely malnourished. Upwards of 2.4 million have been forcibly displaced.
“The principles of burden sharing and global solidarity need to be applied to more countries, that’s what’s needed most at the moment. The lack of a common response by the international community to displacement crises is the biggest gap in refugee protection.”
A Global Solution
With one in 113 people worldwide affected, not only does Rentsch believe the refugee crisis a global problem he also sees the solution to it as a global effort. He describes the barriers to resolution as most of the time the lack of political will. Humanitarian agencies are dealing with the consequences of the unsolved conflicts worldwide. “The principles of burden sharing and global solidarity need to be applied to more countries, that’s what’s needed most at the moment. The lack of a common response by the international community to displacement crises is the biggest gap in refugee protection.” In Europe, only Germany, Austria and Sweden having welcomed a significant number of refugees. In these countries Rentsch describes good signs of civil society engagement, an outpouring of solidarity towards those people who need protection. However, the main host countries for refugees are still outside Europe. Turkey hosts 2.7 million refugees. Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran and Ethiopia follow with hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of refugees who have found a safe-haven there.
Today’s refugee crisis is not confined to one country, continent or city. It is just as widespread as the suffering and persecution endured by displaced people. Just as the problem cannot be confined to a specific land mass, neither can the solution. Global solidarity and assistance is needed.