Refugees: high time we acted with humanity

Ellie Vincent is a Young Fabian and member of our contributing writer team. 

The disorganised and cowardly international response to the Refugee Crisis that erupted in 2015 has had tragic human consequences. A UN Global Compact on Refugees to be published next month requires us to mobilise at last and forge a humanitarian solution.

Right now 65.6 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes fleeing war and persecution, mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan, on a scale unseen since World War II. The UN General Assembly unanimously signed The New York Declaration (2016), paying lip service to a more ‘equitable’ and ‘co-ordinated’ response. Outrageously, facing 20 million refugees (a forcibly displaced person who has left their own country), they failed to produce a single tangible target or quota system and dismantled the objective of resettling 10% of refugees. The Declaration tasked the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to produce a compact and action plan by February 2018. Since then the number of refugees has climbed to 22.5m as more escape the escalating South Sudanese conflict and Rohingya Muslims flee Myanmar’s genocide. The Refugee Crisis has been victim of false news and apathy. In anticipation of this action plan we must assess the situation so far and reframe the narrative. It is imperative that we push our governments to embrace fully the UNHCR’s solutions.
Europe’s role in the Refugee Crisis has dominated our perception yet it is essential to view this as a global problem. Irrefutably, the 2.46 million first-time asylum applicants who landed in Europe from 2015-16 constituted an emergency situation. The scale and acute needs of these refugees, who were primarily Syrian, Afghani and Iraqi, put enormous strain on the Italian and Greek islands where the majority had arrived by boat. Yet this was not a uniquely European phenomenon: as of June 2017, Europe hosts 17% of the world’s displaced population, 30% are in Africa, 26% the Middle East and North Africa, 16% the Americas, and Asia hosts 11%. The crisis is worldwide: it is not humanely possible that Europe creates a ‘fortress’ and shares no responsibility hosting these desperate people.

The state of the stateless was dire yet our leaders’ humanity has been bleaker. As of 2016, 86% of Refugees were in low and middle income countries neighbouring the disaster zones. From 2011-2015, Jordan, with a population 10x smaller than Britain’s and with 1.2% of our GDP hosted 656,000 Syrian refugees next to the UK’s 8000. Leaving vast numbers in poorer countries with the least infrastructure is the worst possible humanitarian response. In the name of decency we need an international quota system based on GDP and population density.

Host countries have been grievously unsupported. The UN refugee agency’s calculated and requested budgets to provide a coherent refugee response have consistently not been met. They received just 48% of what they needed in Syria, 37% in Burundi, 27% in Yemen and 20% in South Sudan. We cannot overestimate the human suffering caused by this apathy: not when we see three year old Alan Kurdi drowned on a beach. Not when teenagers are selling their eyeballs to human-smugglers. Nor when traffickers in Libya are perpetrating systematic rape against children. If the international community organised genuine legal means for refugees to escape and provided sufficient aid we could prevent these catastrophes.

Solidarity has been lacking with even the most vulnerable. The UNHCR has identified 1.2 million refugees in particular need of third country resettlement (many are torture victims) and less than ten percent were successfully accepted. Thirty countries, including Britain, participate in the resettlement scheme: thirty countries could easily accommodate 1.2 million people. The UK government resisted all calls to accept refugees from mainland Europe arguing it encouraged traffickers and acted as a disincentive to taking legal routes. This ignores the fact that asylum-seekers cannot apply for legal visas thus for many landing in Europe represented their only escape. In 2015 there were 95,000 unaccompanied minors on the continent. Lord Alf Dubs persuaded the government to accept an anticipated 3,000 of these children, which was shamefully reduced to 480.

Some countries have led amidst the inertia, in 2015 Angela Merkel welcomed all Syrian asylum applicants. In the following year Germany received 722,000 asylum applications next to Britain’s 39,000. Why have we, the country of Kindertransport, shrank and shirked? The government stressed that the UK was second only to the US in its donations to camps surrounding Syria. This is commendable but more must be done. Globescan conducted a worldwide survey and revealed that 1/10 people would host a refugee in their home. This figure rose to 40% in China and 29% in the UK. Crucially 80% of all nations would agree to accept refugees in their country. When the UN refugee agency publishes its action plan, we must act.

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