This World Refugee Day, Head of Humanitarian Policy, Advocacy and Campaigns, Fionna Smyth, reflects on the recent UNHCR refugee figures and reminds us of those who are seeking safety in poorer countries.
We’ve learned that more than 68 million people have been forced from their homes worldwide. It is the fifth year in a row that this number has hit a record high. Perhaps that number makes you feel sad, or anxious about how space can possibly be found for them all. Perhaps it seems so large that it becomes meaningless. Either way, it’s not the number you should be looking at.
As someone who has visited many countries hosting refugees, I know all too well the human suffering behind this shocking UN statistic. Otherwise ordinary men, women and children in extraordinary disasters add up to this figure. Whether they have abandoned homes in South Sudan or Myanmar, the experience of leaving behind gardens, precious photos, friends and relatives is every bit as traumatic as it would be for your or I.
The number to look at is 85 percent. That is the proportion of those people who are seeking safety in poorer countries. It doesn’t include those disembarking from rescue ships in the Mediterranean, or seeking asylum in the UK. It speaks of those who are out of the headlines, out of the news. It’s a number that flatly contradicts the idea that most refugees are heading for Europe.
The number to look at is 85 percent. That is the proportion of those people who are seeking safety in poorer countries.
Take Bangladesh. This country has welcomed more than 900,000 Rohingya refugees from neighbouring Myanmar. Since last August, a camp the size of a small city has been created from scratch. Bamboo and tarpaulin shelters prickle from hills as far as the eye can see. Yet as the heavy downpours and high winds of this year’s monsoon begin, this city could melt into the earth leaving very vulnerable people with nothing. Oxfam is there in Cox’s Bazaar providing vital aid such as clean water and food to almost a third of those refugees.
Bangladesh, the 139th richest country in the world, has taken in hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in a matter of weeks. There couldn’t be a better example of another stark UN statistic: that four out of five refugees remain in countries next door to their own. In Europe, in the UK, we should remember that it is overwhelmingly poor, neighbouring countries that are the most generous hosts.
And yet tens of millions of people who flee their homes don’t even get that far. Willingly or unwillingly, two-thirds of that 68.5 million stay in their own countries. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where four million people have been forced from their homes, a mass exodus is unfolding largely away from the world’s gaze. As if its long-running conflict wasn’t enough, the recent Ebola outbreak in the west of the country has so far led to more than 50 cases and over 20 deaths.
South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, has also contributed to this record number. A third of its population, over four million people, have been forced from their homes by a brutal civil war that began in 2013. Civilians have been attacked and killed. Schools and hospitals have been looted and destroyed. More than two million people have sought safety in neighbouring countries like Uganda and Ethiopia, while 1.7 million displaced people remain inside the country’s borders.
How can it be right that poorer, developing countries host 85 percent of the world’s displaced people, while richer countries sometimes seem to be doing everything they can to keep them out? It is understandable that many refugees want to stay close to home, but host countries should be supported far better than they are now. Every year, a new record replaces the last, but that stubborn 85 percent figure refuses to budge. It’s about time we did something about it.
We need a new agreement on how the world shares responsibility for these vulnerable people, and we need it as soon as we can. The number of refugees rose by almost 3 million in only a year. This is a challenge to our common humanity that is not going to wait.
Thankfully, the UK and other governments will soon have an opportunity to get this right. In September, a new mechanism for sharing responsibility for refugees will come before the UN in New York. Prime Minister Theresa May should back it, and she should make sure it has real teeth. She should also listen to the voices of displaced people themselves who are so often ignored in decisions that affect their lives. Unless we start looking at that 85 percent figure, and sharing responsibility with countries far poorer than us, the record numbers will keep rising.