Today marks World Refugee Day. Once again, this past year was record breaking for refugees and the forcibly displaced, albeit all the wrong records.
The number of forcibly displaced in the world hit a record high in 2016, with an estimated 65.6 million people displaced. Of this number, 22.5 million are refugees – the highest number ever recorded – while 40.3 million are currently displaced within their own countries. Finally, 2.8 million people sought asylum in 2016.
But beyond the numbers are real people and a more complicated picture. Refugee hosting and resettlement remains a controversial topic among the countries most able to contribute, while new crises threaten to continue to overwhelm the international refugee system.
It’s Not Just Syria. Refugees Are Fleeing from New Conflicts
Although refugees and IDPs from Syria and Iraq still dominate headline, several new hotspots have emerged over the past year. Nearly 1.9 million people have now fled South Sudan with more than 700,000 fleeing in 2016 alone, making it the fastest growing refugee population in the world. The speed of the crisis is such that Uganda’s Bidi Bidi refugee camp is now estimated to be the world’s largest, taking the title from Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp which has accepted and hosted Somali refugees for almost 30 years.
And there are no indications that the number of people fleeing South Sudan will abate any time soon. While the civil war there started in 2013, the rapid increase in indiscriminate killings along ethnic lines over the past year has led some to call the conflict genocide. The declaration of famine in parts of South Sudan with an estimated 1 million more people on the brink is also fueling the exodus. Both of these issues require political solution, but political will among the warring factions within South Sudan is notably lacking.
Venezuela is Poised to Explode
On the other side of the world Venezuela’s growing political and economic crisis is also pushing thousands of people to flee. Even though Venezuelan emigration has been trending up for the past decade, this past year saw a considerable spike in Venezuelans leaving the country. In the United States, by the end of 2016 Venezuelans became the largest national group requesting asylum in the U.S., a first for the formerly middle-income Latin American nation.
According to Voice of America, Venezuela cracked the top ten asylum seeking nationalities in early 2014 meaning it took only a little over two years for it to vault to the top spot, a striking increase. But the impact of Venezuelan emigration is better seen closer to home. Although the border between Colombia and Venezuela has always been relatively open, these days thousands of Venezuelans cross the border every day in search of work, safety, food and medical care. Some stays are only temporary, but increasingly those who cross are refusing to go back. As a result, Colombian hospitals and social services are starting to buckle under the strain.
A similar development is also occurring in Brazil where tens of thousands of Venezuelans arrive every month. Like Colombia, some of those who come are only there for short stays to stock up on food and medicine, but the number of those planning to stay in rapidly increasing. In the first five months of 2017, more than 8,000 Venezuelans have requested asylum with thousands more still waiting for the appointment where they too can formally request not to return to Venezuela.
Although on opposite sides of the world, the situations unfolding in South Sudan and Venezuela highlight the difficulties facing neighboring governments and humanitarian organizations in responding the growing number of forced migrants around the world.
While the hotspots of forced migration may change, one thing has not: developing countries still host the majority of the world’s refugees.
In fact, out of the top ten hosting nations only one – Germany – is in the developed world. Furthermore, one-third of refugees are currently hosted in countries termed as “least developed,” a stark comparison to the roughly 10 per cent of refugees and asylum seekers hosted by the far wealthier nations of Europe and North America.
Despite this and a drop in the number of new refugees and migrants reaching Europe, individual EU countries are still abstaining from burden sharing. Battles over the resettlement of approved refugees from Greece and Italy to the rest of the EU have come to a head with Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic refusing to accept any refugees. This week the Central European Defence Cooperation – made up of Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – met to discuss migration into the bloc, including the use of armed forces to prevent it. The refusals to take part in the EU’s resettlement scheme comes as Italy struggles to keep up with migration receptions now that the main route through Greece has been closed.
Instead the EU has been focusing its attention at stopping migrants at the Libyan coast, impeding them to complete the last leg of a usually long and arduous journey. In February a deal was reached that saw the EU give Libya $200 million in exchange for beefed up patrols by the Libyan coast guard and the creation of refugee camps within the country. Further agreements have been reached to have European border agents patrol with the Libyan coast guard and target human traffickers.
However, human rights and aid groups are extremely critical of these measures, especially as evidence grows of migrant mistreatment by Libyan authorities. In April the IOM reported that African migrants and refugees were being sold at modern-day slave markets within Libya, while new evidence suggests that some refugees may be held for ransom by Libyan officials. The lack of security within Libya has made adequate funding and operation of migration centers slow going, leading to the UN calling for the government to shut down its detention centers due to their inhumane conditions. Such abuses, however, have not slowed Europe’s attempts to turn refugee and migrant boats back to Libyan shores.
Once again a similar situation is playing out on the other side of the world regarding Australia. After years of reports of abuse in offshore detention centers, the Australian government agreed last week to a record AU$70 million settlement for the 1,905 current and former asylum seekers sent to the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre in Papua New Guinea. Although the government does not admit liability in the case, the settlement is believed to be the largest human rights settlement in Australian history.
Yet despite calls by the UN for Australia to shut down its offshore detention centers and repatriate qualified refugees and asylum seekers, the Australian government is determined not to allow any of the asylum seekers at Manus or Nauru to resettle on the mainland. The desire to keep these asylum seekers – who are mainly from the Middle East, South and Central Asia – led Australia to turn down New Zealand’s offer to resettle 150 asylum seekers as they could eventually re-enter Australia as New Zealand residents. Instead, plans for what to do with the hundreds of people still at Manus and Nauru remain unclear even as the centers are scheduled to be closed by the end of the year.
Despite numerous calls for international greater cooperation and burden sharing when it comes to dealing with refugee crises, real cooperation has yet to appear.
On the diplomatic stage, one of the most significant developments of the past year was the UN Summit on Refugees and Migrants in September. From the summit came the New York Declaration, setting up a framework for working towards a Global Compact on refugees in 2018.
Still, progress is slow. The uptick in nationalist parties and political candidates across the West, coupled with frustrated governments in the Global South, is creating a dangerous setting for refugees, IDPs and asylum seekers. Rather than finding new ways to embrace those who are forcibly displaced, the world still seems more intent on finding ways to ensure refugees will not be their burden.
There is a chance that the Global Compact will change this. Regional and stakeholder consultations will take place later this year, allowing many countries who feel sidelined in the debate a proper voice. But as the past year has shown, basic attitudes towards refugees need to change if real progress is to be made as the next refugee crisis may just be around the corner.