The challenge to provide adequate relief to refugees and internally displaced persons has always been formidable. Despite decades of concerted efforts to alleviate this gloom, it gets only worse.
World War II displaced more than 15 million people from their homes. By the end of 2019, that number had swollen to nearly 80 million.
So the number of refugees, defined by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as “people who have fled war, violence, conflict or persecution and have crossed an international border to find safety in another country,” has increased by more than four times even though there hasn’t been a global war since 1945.
The UNHCR deploys tens of thousands of employees in 135 countries, but they require substantially higher resources to tackle the challenges.
Two-thirds of the refugees today come from Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar, with no permanent solutions to any of the conflicts driving them out of their homelands. As well, parts of Africa, Nagorno-Karabakh, the Korean Peninsula, eastern Ukraine, and other regions remain volatile.
When one crisis ends, another starts elsewhere to thrust waves of refugees on to the rest of the world. Unless there is a new global order, or at least some efforts to get there, this tragedy is here to stay.
There is a limit to which donors can continue to be generous, given their internal challenges. The welfare of its own citizens is the prime responsibility of each government.
Human-rights agencies lament that the rich countries are not doing enough. But are these countries obliged to do more? Hospitality and generosity are welcome virtues for every nation, but the better-off countries should not be held responsible and accountable for man-made crises elsewhere.
There is an oft-repeated argument that refugees are future assets for a host nation’s economy, notwithstanding the initial burden. That may well be true. However, that is something for the host nations to decide. There is no one-size-fits-all doctrine for this.
The traditional donor nations’ appetite to take in refugees and to provide liberally for internally distressed people is shrinking because of a combination of economic downturns and ultra-nationalism. The lack of adequate support for the looming famine in Yemen is a relevant example. This tragedy is unfolding as the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of our times. But the funds available for the crisis is significantly reduced every year.
We now see telling signs of refugee fatigue in most parts of the world. The US and Mexico are detaining people running away from violence in Central America. People risk potentially lethal journeys on the high seas to escape persecution and poverty in Africa, only to get arrested in Europe. Australia, a nation of immigrants, is putting unwelcome visitors behind bars.
Are we treating this disease correctly?
The world has been treating this crisis pretty much the same way all these years without a much-needed lateral reassessment. There have been no collective and decisive actions to defend the world against the recurrence of such tragedies.
The refugee crisis is an effect, not a disease in itself. Grappling with effects all along, we have mostly been reactive to events that cause these calamities. The perpetrators continue to unleash refugees, organizations like the UNHCR continue to appeal to our collective conscience, the donor nations continue to do what they can, and the world waits for the problem to disappear.
Have we sincerely addressed, resolutely followed up, and effectively treated the geneses of these crises? How many people have been held responsible for creating a situation where ordinary citizens face the compulsion to leave everything behind and brave horrid conditions in search of shelters in unfamiliar settings?
Syria was not in crisis until certain parts of the world teamed up to create one to serve their own interests. Not too long ago, Afghanistan and Iraq were flourishing. If the world had learned lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq, there would have been no Syrian refugees to handle. Ditto for Yemen.
The time has come for an urgent review. We need to strengthen our world’s immunity to such manufactured disasters. The world must unite in naming, shaming, isolating, and perhaps punishing the culprits. It must create a new political order, where tyrants or rebels in one part of the world cannot cause mass human exodus engulfing the rest of the world, where refugee problems can be preempted, not just treated.
It is a tall order, but we need to begin somewhere. Otherwise, this mass heartbreak is bound to get out of control one day with millions in dire straits and not many to help.
Follow Jayanta Gopal Borpujari on Twitter @borpu2