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People on the Run, UNCHR: Worldwide Refugees Hit 70 Million

On the occasion of the international refugee day, the UN agency directed by Filippo Grandi, published a report with the latest findings

UNHCR/Helene Caux Rifugiati Venezuelani in fila per ottenere un timbro sul passaporto al confine Ecuador-Perù. (13 Giugno 2019)

During the presentation of the report at the United Nations headquarters, La Voce asked how the UN included the Venezuelans leaving their country as refugees, while almost always considering people who flee Africa as economic migrants

While the polemics on migrants and on the landing of NGOs continue unabated, the International Day of Refugees will be celebrated worldwide on June 20th.  An event that was introduced by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 4, 2000, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the status of refugees (Resolution 55/76). The purpose of the initiative is to “intensify the efforts to prevent and resolve conflicts and to contribute to the peace and security of refugees”. It is worth mentioning that Deputy Prime Minister Salvini’s absence at various meetings of the EU countries at which “arrivals” and the Dublin Agreement were discussed has formed a part of the polemics.

Perhaps given the confusion caused by the media and politicians, it would be good to clear up an important point: not all “migrants” are “refugees”. This latter term indicates a person who, “fearing to be persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, belonging to a particular social group or for his political opinion, is outside his country of origin and cannot or does not want, because of this fear, to avail him or herself of the protection of this country; or rather, not having citizenship, and being outside the country in which he had habitual residence as a result of such events, he cannot or does not want to return to it for the aforementioned fear ” [Article 1A of the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees].

This is an important distinction that explains why of the over 258 million people whoabandoned their home to relocate elsewhere, only 70.8 million people were “forcibly displaced” and of these, why only about a third meet the requirements to be considered a refugee. A recently published report by the United Nations, titled “Global Trends”, helps us to understand who these 70.8 million people are by dividing them into three main categories. The first group is comprised of “proper” refugees, who as of 2018, have reached 25.9 million worldwide (of which 5.5 million are Palestinian refugees entrusted to the UNHCR). The second group encompasses asylum seekers (but not necessarily refugees). These are people outside their country of origin who receive international protection. At the end of 2018, the recorded asylum seekers were 3.5 million. The third and final group, numbering 41.3 million, is made up of people “relocated” not abroad but within the borders of their own country, a phenomenon commonly referred to as “Internal Displacement”.

These are huge numbers, especially if we consider that the trend seems to be growing exponentially. The current number is double that of 20 years ago. Even if we just compare the numbers to last year, we see an increase of 2.3 million  people could apply for refugee status. Every day, 37,000 people are “displaced”.

Global forced displacement chart, by population and motive (2009-2018)

As usual, we rarely look for the causes of a phenomenon, nor try to solve the problem at the root. The measures adopted are mostly palliatives. These are merely ineffectual attempts to assist these people– who have been ousted from their own countries– as much as possible. This is an effort that, for the UN, is becoming increasingly difficult given that, according to UNHCR data, the people who have returned to their own country are only 2.9 million. The vast majority of refugees remain across the border, enduring hardships that are easy to imagine. Adding to this difficulty is the fact that the countries where most refugees are located are usually not far from their country of origin. More than two-thirds (67%) of refugees come from only five countries: over 5.6 million are fleeing Syria (since 2011 they have been seeking safety in countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and others). After almost six years of war in Syria, the vulnerability and poverty of refugees continue to increase–as does their impact on host communities–while the funding for the humanitarian response is failing to meet the demand.

And then there is Afghanistan where there are 2.7 million refugees.  This is immediately followed by South Sudan which, with 2.3 million refugees, represents the most serious situation on the African continent: people fleeing Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (not forgetting the 1.8 million internally displaced persons in South Sudan). Children represent over 65% of the refugee population from South Sudan, a huge number that offers only a glimpse of the gravity of the situation. Another which is also worrying is in Myanmar, with 1.1 million refugees. And there is Somalia, which is at the center of one of the worst humanitarian crises in the modern world. Twenty years of conflicts and environmental catastrophes (including drought) have already forced a quarter of the 7.5 million inhabitants of the country to flee, and the numbers promise to grow inexorably.

These are people who need everything: food, clean water, medical assistance, education for the little ones and equipped camps; and then there are Sudan, the Central African Republic, Eritrea and Burundi. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the ongoing conflicts cause enormous “internal” and “external” displacements of hundreds of thousands of people. Just in 2017, there were about 100,000 Congolese who fled to neighboring countries as refugees– due to widespread activities of the militias, riots and violence–to join the 585,000 already in exile. And in 2018 conditions have not improved.  The situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo (particularly in eastern and central areas) continues to deteriorate. Today, the Congolese refugee population is among the ten largest in the world and almost 55% of the country’s refugees are children, many of whom cross borders unaccompanied by parents or legal guardians.

The numbers speak eloquently about the state of refugees and should make us reflect on the consequences of certain wars or peace missions. Or in other cases – as in the case of South Sudan and Somalia – on the indifference of developed countries. Furthermore, if we were wondering which country hosts the largest number of refugees in relation to the population, we would learn that it is Lebanon, itself a poor country, which hosts one refugee for every six inhabitants.

The number of countries hosting the most refugees is also significant; the top four still include poor countries: Turkey – 3.7 million, Pakistan – 1.4 million, Uganda – 1.2 million, and Sudan – 1.1 million. This figure explains the difficulties faced by the governments of these countries, which are often abandoned by the richer countries (the only exception, at least in part, is Turkey, which has received substantial aid from the EU in exchange for a promise to curb its flow to the old continent).

If you are looking for First World countries among those that host the greatest number of refugees, you have to scroll down to the fifth place, where we find Germany (which hosts 1.1 million refugees). The latter is immediately followed by more struggling countries: Iran, Lebanon, Bangladesh and Ethiopia. These statistics would almost suggest that the problem of refugees fleeing one poor country merely to take refuge in another poor country, does not concern the richest nations. USA, Canada, Japan, France, United Kingdom, Australia and many others occupy positions very far from the top in this ranking.

Source country of refugees, by country and population (end-2017 to end-2018)

It is not surprising to see the initiatives undertaken to celebrate World Refugee Day in Italy. The organization headed by the UN has addressed this issue by involving “representatives from the world of culture, sports and entertainment” and organizing a “program of events and initiatives around three pillars of the Italian heritage: art, music and gastronomy.” Carlotta Sami, UNHCR spokesperson for Southern Europe, declared, “At a time when a negative attitude prevails towards refugees and asylum seekers, we strongly reiterate the need to see them first as individuals, with their baggage of courage and hopes, just waiting for a fair opportunity to realize their potential.”

On the same day of the publication, at the UN headquarters in New York, Ninette Kelley, the UNHCR spokesperson in the US, talked about the “Global Trends Report.”Among the various topics discussed, she focused on the migration situation in Venezuela, which has already seen over four million of its citizens cross to neighboring countries such as Colombia and Peru.  At a press briefing, La Voce asked for greater clarity on the differences between immigrants and refugees as they are defined in accordance to the United Nations’ directive.  In addition, on the reason why a person who escapes from Venezuela is considered a refugee, while a person escaping from Eritrea maintains the status of an emigrant.

The words inspired by the decision to celebrate World Refugee Day on the global level come to mind: “Intensify efforts to prevent and resolve conflicts and contribute to peace and security for the refugees”. This was the spirit in establishing World Refugee Day. A way to raise awareness among nations and emphasize the need for radical interventions while taking into consideration the constant increase in the number of refugees and their presence in poor countries. However, some countries apparently prefer to carry out initiatives of “art, music, and gastronomy” without focusing on the depth of the problems and, above all, on their causes.

European countries can no longer ignore the magnitude of the crisis in poor countries and the rise in the number of refugees. Those issues are not going to disappear, on the contrary, if not addressed by concrete actions, they will only escalate with repercussions for all shores and nations.

Translated by Aligi Ciancio

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