The world already has a refugee crisis

The media's focus on the European "refugee crisis" obscures the fact the bulk of refugees are in camps in the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Photo: Zoriah via Flickr CC.

On December 16, 2015 Jordanian police stormed a makeshift camp of Sudanese refugees located in central Amman outside the offices of the United High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). They rounded up some 800 men, women and children and forced them into a detention center, beating those who resisted and later reportedly using tear gas.

The next day, Jordan started deporting the Sudanese refugees with military precision to Khartoum. To force asylum-seekers back to the country they fled is a brash violation of international law. But Jordan didn’t seem to care much about the unenforceable dictates of international human rights standards, perhaps calculating that the international community would be afraid to rally around the Sudanese in fear of the repercussions for the 600,000 Syrian refugees also living in the country. By all accounts they were right – despite a few public statements, including a noticeably weak one from UNHCR – no one exerted significant pressure to prevent the deportations.

The Sudanese refugees had camped outside the UNHCR offices in Amman for over a month to demand improved living conditions. The Sudanese protestors originally entered Jordan hopeful that the war and persecution they fled in Sudan was behind them, that after a perilous journey, they entered the perceived warm embrace of the international refugee system, with its new papers and asylum and promises of a life free from the icy-clutches of fear. Clearly, the Jordanian government wanted to send a signal that its hospitality had limits – refugees should be silent and orderly and thankful, not audacious enough to ask for what they were entitled to.

It seems everyone working with, for or against refugees is making a trade these days. Whose lives count as refugees is up for debate across Europe as countries try to tinker with asylum policies and to kick certain people out for those they publicly accept as legitimate. But such equations never take into account what it would mean to actually provide resettlement for the thousands of refugees waiting in the Middle East, Africa and Asia—people who have no chance of going home in the near future and may spend the rest of their lives in refugee camps.

According to UNHCR, there are now 14.4 million refugees worldwide. Over one million of these refugees urgently need resettlement. Most of these refugees are from 14 countries: Myanmar, Iraq, Bhutan, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Burundi, Ethiopia and Columbia. (And while UNHCR’s numbers take into account some Palestinian refugees, they leave out 5.1 million Palestinian refugees living in neighboring countries, the West Bank and the Gaza strip.) We do not often hear about the refugees from some of these countries, but they are there waiting for resettlement nonetheless.

If you are a refugee, resettlement means you are moved from a refugee camp to a new country that has agreed to offer you residence. Resettlement is the opportunity to re-build your life; for your children to go to school continuously, for adults to have work permits, and the knowledge you are safe, or at least safe in a certain sense, as hate crimes are also on the rise. Resettlement does not always mean your family can come with you – Sweden for instance, does not continuously recognize the right to family reunification, and there are indications other European countries are going to do the same.

For the past three years, the U.S. has accepted 70,000 refugees for resettlement – more than any other country. The Obama administration announced in 2015 that the U.S. would increase this number to 85,000 in 2016 and 100,000 in 2017, which many found contemptible because the U.S. could afford to take many more. But being able to afford refugee re-settlement and having the political capital to do so are two very different things. Norway, one of the world’s wealthiest nations with only 5 million people and extremely low population density, normally accepts only 1,620 refugees a year (outside of the additional refugees they pledged to take in from Syria). Some countries – including the Gulf nations – have not signed the UN Refugee Convention and officially accept 0 refugees per year.

With chances for resettlement globally slim without major political and policy change from wealthy countries, and the likelihood dwindling that refugees from many countries can safely return to their homes in the next several years, the only other option for these refugees is the hope that host countries will allow them to become real members of society – able to work, live in apartments, study and leave the camps behind.

But this too is increasingly a dream. Over and over again, host countries refuse to allow refugees freedom of movement or the chance to integrate. Ethiopia for instance, requires all refugees to live in camps. In Gambella, these camps are often on undesirable land in flood-prone areas. Kenya has forced Somali refugees who settled in Nairobi back to the infamous Dadaab camp. Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon deny refugees the right to work. Each region is playing a face-off with the other. Just last week, Jordan admitted thousands of Syrian refugees were stranded at the border.

Does the fact that the media only covers certain refugees and refugee crises feed into these games, or is it just that our compassion has limits, or both? It’s enough to care about one refugee population. It’s enough to make a donation to help one group of refugees, and then go about the day without a care for the rest. Charity is easier than political change –a spare room rather than a building, a donated jacket instead of a movement.

Some Eritrean women are so desperate to make it to Europe as opposed to staying in a refugee camp that they first receive injectable contraception before undertaking dangerous smuggling routes – because they are aware they are likely to be raped. We often do not hear their stories, but they are accumulating, forming the history of a singular crisis and of the crises, one we are all bearing witness to, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

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