Refugees are people, not pawns

While we wait for a kinder period of human history, we should support refugees rather than see them as beggars or terrorists, writes Enda O’Neill

THINK of the refugee crisis and you’ll probably think of Greece and Italy. The dramatic increase in numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean in 2015 brought the reality of war to our doorsteps, as we saw images of people fleeing to countries and places we all know. With a fourfold increase in the numbers landing by sea last year, understandably many of us have asked, “how will we cope?”. At times, it has seemed as if everyone is coming to the EU.

However, the reality could not be more different. Yes, there is a refugee crisis; it is just not here.

As UNHCR figures show, 65.3m people were displaced by war, conflict, and persecution at the end of 2015, the highest figure since the Second World War; and 5.8m more people than just one year ago. If these people were part of one country, they would be the 21st largest nation in the world.

Turkey is the largest refugee-hosting country in the world today with 2.5m refugees at the end of last year, followed by Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iran. Of the remaining six countries, five are African — including Ethiopia, the largest refugee-hosting country on the continent with a refugee population of 736,100 people at the end of 2015. By the end of last year, the 10 countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees were all in developing regions. Not one was in the EU.

When one considers the size of these countries’ economies, the share of the burden is even more dramatically illustrated. By the end of 2015 the 30 countries with the largest numbers of refugees when measured against GDP per capita were all in developing regions. The only exception was the Russian Federation, which was in 30th place with 12 refugees per $1 GDP.

The scale of these statistics is shocking but not unexpected. The number of conflicts in the world has mushroomed over the past decade, forcing 24 people every minute to flee their homes in 2015. There is an urgent need for the international community to do all it can collectively to achieve diplomatic solutions to these conflicts. Many refugees dream of returning to their homeland one day when it is safe and we must strive to make this possible. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development also emphasises the need to address the drivers and root causes of conflict and violent extremism, including gross human rights violations, unaccountable institutions, and poor governance.

But while we wait for a kinder period of human history, we must do all we can to support those countries where most refugees have fled and to address the challenges posed by the unprecedented scale of human displacement.

Supporting countries of first asylum:

Means ensuring that countries of first asylum are adequately supported. After fleeing their homes people find themselves facing further challenges, including inadequate shelter and food insecurity. In Lebanon for example, which is host to 1.05m registered Syrian refugees, 70% live below the poverty line of US$3.84 (about €3.45) per person per day. There are no formal refugee camps meaning more than 1m registered Syrians live in over 1,700 communities and locations across the country, often sharing small basic lodgings with other refugee families in overcrowded conditions. With 300,000 Syrian children in the country out of school, it is little wonder that some refugees have paid smugglers so that they can offer their children a better future.

Yet the UN’s refugee response plan for Syria is only 30% funded, underlining how much more needs to be done. Predictable, multi-annual funding, such as Ireland’s commitment to the UN World Food Programme of €60m over three years, is essential.

Legal Pathways:

If we are serious about tackling human trafficking, saving lives at sea, and protecting the most vulnerable, including women and children, we must be flexible and innovative in our approach by establishing and maintaining safe and legal pathways for them to find safety.

Increased resettlement, family reunification, humanitarian visas and study visas for people fleeing conflict and persecution are all important.

Ireland has made an important contribution and is on track to meet its quota of resettling 520 refugees by the end of 2016, but all countries will need to do more to ensure there is a more equitable distribution of refugees around the world. UNHCR expects to put 170,000 people forward for resettlement in 2017, but it is still a fraction of the 1.19m UNHCR considers in need of resettlement.

The job will not be made any easier by the divisive political rhetoric on asylum and migration that has found a home in some countries. Yet, there is cause for hope. In contrast to the toxic narrative played out in some quarters, we have witnessed an outpouring of generosity; by host communities and ordinary people everywhere.

Towns such as Portlaoise and Thurles have done tremendous work in welcoming people to their communities, and the support of local politicians and civil society leaders has never been more welcome. These ordinary people see refugees not as beggars, competitors for jobs, or terrorists, but as people whose lives have been disrupted by war. Welcoming refugees to a local Men’s Shed might not seem extraordinary, but it is a simple act of solidarity that allows us to see refugees as ordinary people, just like you and I.

And it is in that spirit that we hope governments will also view refugees as we prepare for the historic UN high-level meeting on September 19 in New York, which Ireland is co-chairing, on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants. As wars spiral out of control, this meeting is a key opportunity for the global community to take collective responsibility and action for the millions of people whose lives have been destroyed by violence. Just as people have shown solidarity with refugees who have lost everything through no fault of their own, governments must make new commitments to share responsibility for refugees in a spirit of global solidarity, in line with the fundamental principles of international law.

Enda O’Neill is interim head of office at UNHCR Ireland

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