In part one of this blog, I outline the true scale of the current refugee crisis and how it is being framed. In part two, I discuss what a framework for positive change might look like.
The world is facing a refugee crisis of proportions not seen since the Second World War. While the discussion continues to be dominatingly Eurocentric, all over the world, from Guatemala to Burundi, humans are being forced out of their homes and into lives of uncertainty, insecurity and immense suffering.
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Imagine you are walking past a shallow pond in which a child is drowning. To save the child, you can wade in, but you must ruin your expensive clothes to do so. Would you do it? Of course you would. The moral obligation to act to save the child is abundantly clear, even if it comes at the cost of some expensive clothes. What’s more, this obligation is surely not dependent on the child’s location, even if they happen to be in another country. If you can help, you should help, wherever the child is. This is the logical conclusion of Peter Singer’s drowning child analogy. But while the logic is indisputable, the reality seems to differ somewhat.
Human suffering and tragedy is far easier to ignore or pass off as someone else’s responsibility when it’s on the other side of the world. It’s why British people changed their Facebook profile pictures in solidarity with the French following the Paris attacks, but not with the Lebanese after the double suicide bombing in Beirut just hours earlier. And it’s why the global refugee crisis was largely ignored before its arrival on European shores in 2015. The metaphorical child was drowning in shallow ponds all over the world, but we were reluctant to wade in because it was not happening in our shallow pond.
Now that it is, the Western world has finally woken up. But given the overwhelming focus of international media on refugees arriving in Europe, you’d now be forgiven for thinking that this was entirely – or at least largely – a European problem. Yet its effects are being felt all over the globe, with the developing world – as usual – forced to bear the brunt of the cost.
In the last few years, more than 200,000 Burundians have fled their country, fearing a return of the brutal civil war that gripped the nation between 1993 and 2005. Before joining the RSA, I spent 3 months in the Kigoma region of Tanzania, which is now home to more than 140,000 Burundian refugees, with the Nyarugusu camp near the border currently hosting more than twenty times the number living in Calais’s infamous ‘Jungle’. The world’s largest refugee camp, in Dabaab, Kenya, is home to an estimated 328,000 refugees, most of whom have escaped horrific violence in neighbouring Somalia and South Sudan. The Kenyan government has recently announced that it plans to close Dabaab and send its inhabitants back to their war-torn homelands. In the meantime, following 2 years of conflict in the Central African Republic, more than 450,000 refugees have sought safety in neighbouring countries. Cameroon alone has taken in more than a quarter of a million people. In January this year, the UNHCR released a report named Women on the Run, which tells the story of tens of thousands of women fleeing escalating violence in Central America. The women are hoping to escape horrendous acts of rape and exploitation at the hands of increasingly powerful criminal groups in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and parts of Mexico. In fact, 86% of the world’s 19.5 million refugees are hosted not in Europe, but in developing countries. In concentrating on refugees arriving in Europe, leaders are ignoring these millions of displaced people across the rest of the world.
Even the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, which has predominantly been framed by its effects on Western nations, is almost entirely being played out beyond the borders of the EU. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates that at least 6.6 million people in Syria and 3.29 million people in Iraq are internally displaced. Moreover, Lebanon is now playing host to 1.1 million Syrian refugees, in an area 24 times smaller than the UK. If the UK government pledged to match the number of Syrian refugees per square kilometre in Lebanon, it would have to take in at least 26 million. Yet in April this year, 295 MPs voted against accepting 3,000 Syrian child refugees currently unaccompanied in Europe. These are children that have been specifically identified as at risk of child labour, child marriage, mistreatment and exploitation. Such a response is emblematic of the West’s reluctance to shoulder their fair share of the cost of this crisis.
What Britain is doing in response to this crisis beyond Europe is being increasingly driven by the protection of national interest, rather than compassion for the suffering of millions of people. This response to global human suffering is consistent with the UK’s wider strategic approach to international development issues. Last year, the Treasury and the Department for International Development (DFiD) set out the UK’s new aid strategy in a report entitled “UK aid: tackling global challenges in the national interest”. If having the words “national interest” in the title of an international aid strategy doesn’t tell you all you need to know, in one other recent DfID report detailing current strategic aid priorities, “Tackling extreme poverty and helping the world’s most vulnerable” was ranked at only number four on the list. What else is aid for, if not to tackle extreme poverty and help the world’s most vulnerable? Geo-politics in international development is nothing new, unless you believe the spike in US ‘aid’ to Pakistan in 2001 was motivated by coincidentally timed kind heartedness towards the Pakistani people. Yet the UK government’s narrative is becoming worryingly explicit in its self-serving interpretation of international aid. The distinction between serving the people of the UK and helping the world’s most vulnerable citizens has become blurred.
President Obama is to host a global refugee summit in New York this year and hopefully Western leaders will afford it more attention than they did the recently passed World Humanitarian Summit – Angela Merkel was the only G7 leader to attend. Part two of this blog will try to assess how the world can move towards a solution at this summit, and while the crisis is no doubt dauntingly complex and unlikely to be resolved quickly, an adequate response will first require a fundamental change in the way it is viewed. The crisis is global, not European. Any real solution must reflect that.
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