MORE than half of them are children. According to a report released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of refugees — people who have had to flee from their homes — has exceeded 50 million for the first time since World War II. They are scattered in various parts of the world, and the youngest of them, the children, filed nearly 28,000 applications for asylum in as many as 77 countries.
Unsurprisingly, the largest numbers come from Syria, where 1.1 million children, 75pc of whom are believed to be under the age of 12, have registered with the refugee agency since the conflict began. If all the refugees in the world were put together and given their own country, it would be the 24th most populous one in the world.
A sizeable chunk of humans living today do not have the luxury of living at home. A UN spokesperson releasing the report called it “a quantum leap in forced displacement” around the world. The reasons for displacement are varied: some are fleeing war, others famine and environmental degradation. Some are forced to flee their own countries, while others are displaced within their own countries, moving from village to village or from small rural towns into large cities — all of them leaving behind the family and community structures that sustained them.
For those who are crossing borders, their destinations are often just as poor and hapless as what they are trying to leave behind; the largest recipients of refugees from the conflict in Syria are Lebanon and Jordan. Over the past three decades, following wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran have been the recipients of the world’s highest numbers of refugees, receiving 900,000 and 1.6 million respectively.
Those who must roam face closed borders, decrepit camps, ethnic profiling, broken families, and lost connections.
Pakistan’s refugee problem has not only come from abroad. With the beginning of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a huge number of people have been displaced from the areas where the military is targeting suspected militants. Preliminary counts of these internally displaced people have estimated the numbers to be anywhere from 200,000 to 300,000. In terms of percentages, it is estimated that nearly 80pc of the populations of Miramshah and Mirali have fled their homes owing to the fighting.
In a country where one conflict is followed by another, producing refugees piling one atop another, the task of providing aid and resources to rehabilitate these people is gargantuan. Those who have left difficult circumstances at home are thus likely to face new challenges at their destinations, forced to navigate ruthless urban landscapes that are unlikely to be very hospitable to their condition.
These local challenges to resettlement, connected as they are to global conflicts, have no part in the conversation on refugee resettlement at the international level. While countries such as the US and the UK did not hesitate to lead invasions into countries like Iraq and Afghanistan (and now probably Iraq again), they have done little or nothing to assist with refugee resettlement.
Not long after the UN report on refugees was published last week, The New York Times reported UN officials as saying that they had asked donor countries for $16.9 billion this year and had received only 30pc of that amount. Not only do developed countries, complicit as they are in causing conflict in regions, refuse to give the money required to deal with the consequences, they are increasingly unwilling to accept refugees for resettlement within their own borders. So while Pakistan counts up 1.6 million refugees and even a small country like Chad can claim to be home to nearly half a million, the US has given shelter to only 263,600. Countries such as Germany and France have done no better, offering a home to only 187,600 and 232,500 respectively.
The difference in numbers is notable, particularly because it is absent from the discourse on strategic interests and global futures. Developed countries, even those directly responsible for causing upheavals in populations in countries from where refugees originate, are used to lamenting the ongoing political upheavals and seemingly endless governmental chaos. Few or none are willing to connect the dots and look at how the ongoing instability is coddled and continued by people moving from here to there in landscapes of limited opportunity.
As the current debate on re-intervening in Iraq amply demonstrates, the strategic norm is to mess and meddle, and then sequester. The displaced of Iraq must be absorbed by its neighbours, the homeless of Afghanistan also. So long as the borders of the US, the UK or Germany or France are well-sealed from these undesirable human consequences of imperial overreach, everything is entirely okay — the pain of it negligible and easily forgotten.
If hapless refugees or asylum seekers do somehow manage to arrive at the shores of any of these countries (and if they are not immediately deported), they face incarceration in detention centres. Human rights investigations into immigrant detention centres in the US and Australia have revealed all manner of abuses among detainee populations.
This catastrophe of homelessness points to the reality that even the concept of ‘home’ has become a luxury, unavailable to a huge number of people in the world and comfortably claimed only by those who are insulated from the vagaries of war or famine by the luck of having been born in a developed country. Those who must roam face closed borders, decrepit camps, ethnic profiling, broken families, and lost connections. In the meantime, the UN issues reports such as this one, telling us all about how badly it has failed in the very mission for which it was created: failed to convince nations waging war to consider for a moment the cost in lives and homes.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, June 25th, 2014