The worst refugee crisis of our time
This week, Amnesty supporters and thousands of people across the UK are celebrating Refugee Week, recognising the contribution to our country made by refugees – not only the more well-known faces – but also the many friends, neighbours and colleagues in our communities.
Recognising and celebrating refugees has never been more important. We are in the midst of a global refugee crisis – bigger than at any time since the Second World War – and this week’s celebrations stand in direct contrast to the response by many governments.
On the eve of Refugee Week, we published a new report The Global Refugee Crisis: a conspiracy of neglect, focusing on four regions in particular – Syria and its neighbours, the Mediterranean, sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia.
However, the real focus of the report is the all too pervasive callous or indifferent response to refugees and migrants in these regions and elsewhere.
Indifference and hate
It’s not just governments whose response can be indifferent to people’s urgent needs and suffering.
Anti-migrant attitudes have become commonplace across the world. Even explicitly xenophobic and racist language has become normalised in many countries.
There have been several xenophobic attacks against refugees and migrants in South Africa in recent months, and those in Libya have been especially vulnerable to violence and abuse including kidnapping, torture and rape.
— Francesca Pizzutelli (@FPhumanrights) May 11, 2015
It is from Libya that the great majority of those attempting to reach Europe across the Mediterranean come, and whom a Sun columnist in the UK recently likened to insects and norovirus.
Nonetheless, governments need to show leadership in addressing rather than fuelling anti-migrant sentiment. And that requires facing up to the true global situation.
Poorer countries left to shoulder the burden
Responsibility for refugees continues to fall disproportionately on poorer countries. And, as UNHCR’s most recent analysis confirms, more than half of those refugees are children.
— UNHCR United Kingdom (@UNHCRUK) June 18, 2015
Turkey, Lebanon and Pakistan each host more than one million refugees, with Iran, Jordan and Ethiopia not far behind (and these numbers do not include five million Palestinian refugees, who fall outside UNHCR’s remit, many of whom are in Jordan and Lebanon).
By contrast, the UK received 25,020 asylum claims over the 12 months ending March 2015 and additionally accepted 954 refugees for resettlement from around the world during this period.
The world must show more compassion
The response of many richer countries has been to close their borders, while providing far from adequate support to those poorer countries accommodating most of the world’s refugees.
At the start of June, the UN’s call for humanitarian assistance for Syrian refugees was only 23% funded. The consequence? Cuts to food aid for Syrian refugee families in Lebanon and Jordan, and further reason for more refugees to move on, seeking hope and security for themselves and their children.
There is a huge shortfall in resettlement places for the most vulnerable people. Lebanon and Jordan, in particular, are struggling to cope. And along with Turkey, they have closed borders to people trying to escape Syria.
At least now, Europe has responded to the Mediterranean crisis by introducing an ongoing and effective search and rescue mission.
HMS Bulwark has had her busiest day in the Med so far - saving approximately 1,200 migrants from nine vessels pic.twitter.com/Yidk5gwhAL
— Ministry of Defence (@DefenceHQ) June 7, 2015
But it is Europe’s closed borders, which have led to this crisis and it took more than 1,000 people to drown in the space of five days to persuade European leaders to act.
In South East Asia, 300 people died at sea from dehydration, starvation and abuse by boat crews when Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand refused to allow their boats to land.
And Australia continues to send asylum-seekers attempting to reach its shores to Papua New Guinea’s islands where they are detained in deliberately harsh and humiliating conditions.
So what is to be done?
Anyone suggesting there are quick and easy answers to all these and many other related or similar problems clearly needs their head examining. But simply putting our heads in the sand in the face of the global refugee crisis will not make it go away.
Those of us concerned about the inhumanity shown to so many of the world’s refugees can do our bit to buck some of these trends by, for example, participating and indeed enjoying events like those during Refugee Week.
Sadly, political leaders appear to need the support and encouragement which doing so provides.
Of course, it is governments who ultimately need to take concerted and collective action. No country can address the scale of the current crisis alone.
But as Europe’s leaders continue to discuss the EU’s agenda on migration – which is at least an attempt at a more comprehensive response from across Europe – we would all do well to encourage our own government to engage positively in such discussions, something to date it has failed to do.
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.