Pictures of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler who was found dead on a Turkish shore earlier this month, sent shockwaves across the world. Kurdi was drowned during his family’s bid to escape into Europe – but he was just one of many.
More than 4 million Syrians – or nearly one-fifth of Syria’s pre-war population – have fled their home country since the start of the civil war in 2011. Thousands of them have perished making the treacherous journey across the sea in ill-equipped boats, and through land in crowded trucks and trains.
The scale of the Syrian refugee problem will only get worse by the day, say officials, but the world’s response has been disproportionate. The UN’s refugee agency reported that its 2015 aid plan is only 41% funded. Many of Syria’s refugees live on less than 50 cents a day worth of food in camps, according to the World Food Programme.
But this isn’t the first time this year that the world is grappling with a refugee crisis. In May this year, hundreds of Rohingyas fleeing Myanmar were found abandoned off the coast of Thailand. Then, in July, Thailand was criticized for sending back more than 100 Uighur refugees to China, where the Turkic-speaking minority faces persecution.
In many ways, today’s refugee crises are similar to the problem of climate change. Much like in the fight against climate change, not all countries are equally able to resettle and rehabilitate refugees. One might blame Hungary’s hawkish Prime Minister Viktor Orban for sealing off entry into his country and warning to deport refugees, or Poland’s Andrzej Duda for rejecting the EU’s quota plan for refugee resettlement.
But Hungary and Poland are not France or Germany. The former two have per capita incomes near US$14000 – less than a third of Germany’s. Much of Eastern Europe – and Greece in particular – is also mired in deep government debt, making refugee settlement all the more difficult.
Then, there are cultural factors. Europe’s media director for Human Rights Watch, Andrew Stroehlein says, “The countries that have very little diversity are some of the most virulent against refugees.” Figures prove him right: while Western Europe has received a huge influx of skilled migrants over the last few decades, Eastern Europe’s relative lack of prosperity has kept its society largely homogeneous – and opposed to any kind of alien immigration, refugee or otherwise.
Poland, for instance, is 98 percent white and 94 percent Catholic. And Warsaw recently witnessed thousands of Polish citizens march through its streets, chanting anti-Islamic slogans. Let alone Duda’s comments against the refugees, Poland is probably not even desirable for refugees amidst this din.
Naturally, refugees don’t factor in political, economic or social circumstances when they flee to a foreign country. That is why the first countries to be hit by a sudden influx during a crisis are those in the immediate neighborhood.
And it’s true of Syria’s neighbors as well – Turkey and Lebanon have each taken in over a million refugees (Europe, by contrast, houses less than 150,000). The Rohingyas in Myanmar all flee to nearby Thailand and Malaysia, not Europe or North America.
Often, refugees encounter unfavorable economic and social conditions in their receiving countries as well, because these are generally not much wealthier than their home country and therefore unable to resettle them effectively enough. The sudden influx also causes clashes between the refugee population and the local inhabitants.
What the world needs, therefore, is a fairer and more effective framework for the distribution and rehabilitation of refugees. The UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention – later expanded by a protocol in 1967 – merely defines what qualifies an individual to be tagged as a ‘refugee’ and what basic rights ought to be bestowed on him, not who should rehabilitate him or how.
One can expect such a resolution to be dogged by countless political challenges, much like the resolution to commit on cutting carbon emissions. But that is exactly what refugee crises are – political challenges. The massive humanitarian disaster in Syria and North Africa, the issue of Rohingya rights in Myanmar or the security of Uyghurs in China are all political problems that need hardcore political solutions, not just military wars that can be won through bombing.
But the deep geopolitical rifts of today – between West and East, North and South – have made it near impossible for the world to muster the consensus that it needs in order to solve them.
If worsening refugee crises show anything, it is that countries are turning increasingly incapable of keeping their political instability from spilling across the border. And that is why solving the root cause of a refugee crisis is now a global concern.
(c) 2015, Swarajya