Refugees’ plight is worsening as their numbers grow and their nature changes
Friday, March 01, 2013
THEY are fast approaching 1m and their future is bleak. It is unlikely that the refugees who have fled the ghastly war in Syria will be able to return home anytime soon. Nor are many likely to start a new life abroad. They live in camps or shared rooms in neighbouring countries. They cannot work. Health care, education and other services are vestigial.
“We are alive but not living,” says
Yasser Jani, a 39-year-old chemistry teacher who, with his wife and
children, has been in a camp in southern Turkey since July 2011.
The plight of Syria’s refugees exemplifies a growing global problem.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) counts 15.2m
(4.8m of them Palestinians, looked after by a different UN outfit), with
an additional 26.4m displaced within their own lands. But hosts are
increasingly unfriendly to refugees, and ever more unwilling to allow
them to settle permanently. Conflicts are becoming more protracted. The
old ways of dealing with people fleeing across borders, designed for
smaller numbers and shorter stays, rarely work anymore. The difference
between refugees and economic migrants can be blurry; so is the standard
of living of the new arrivals and the worst-off in the countries they
Reluctance to accept refugees is growing. Even countries that have
signed the UN’s Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, approved
in 1951, are often loth to recognise asylum claims. Others are harsher
still: unwilling in some cases to consider any uninvited guest as a
TunTun, a 41-year-old Karen from Myanmar, has spent 20 years in
Thailand’s Mae La camp. He dare not return home, but cannot go
elsewhere. The Thai authorities have not signed the convention and class
people like him as illegal migrants. Some states try to turf them out.
In 2007, for instance, Malawi’s government closed one of two camps for
people from war-torn states including Rwanda and Somalia. President
Joyce Banda has mooted closing the second, arguing that its population
has been there too long.
At best, refugees have recognised status and are allowed to stay but
even then most remain dependent on agency handouts or informal work to
survive. Many are barred from public services such as health care or
education. The number of those living in such limbo is increasing,
mostly because more stay away from home for longer, or permanently:
three-quarters of those registered with UNHCR have been in exile for
five years or more.
Another reason is that the economic crisis has made rich countries
stingier. America and Canada took in almost all of the 200,000
Hungarians who fled the 1956 uprising. Today more countries have
resettlement programmes, but the numbers they take are only a tiny slice
of the world’s refugee population. In 2011 only 62,000 were accepted;
in 2012, it was 68,589.
Only rarely does a country raise its intake, as Australia did after
many cases of people dying while trying to row there. The rich world is
also cutting back on what it spends on aid to refugees. “The burnout is
astonishing,” says Dawn Chatty who heads the Refugee Studies Centre at
Refugee populations are also more mobile than they used to be.
Fund-raising pictures may still depict shoeless Africans in camps. But
many refugees today are middle-class people crammed into cheap flats.
That is the fate of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who fled sectarian
bloodshed in 2006 for neighbouring Damascus and Amman. Their needs were
not food, water and shelter, but psychological care and education. Some
family members tried to commute to homes and businesses in Iraq.
Nought for your comfort
Aid agencies have had to adapt. UNHCR sends text messages with
information; the World Food Programme mails electronic grocery vouchers,
which give recipients more choice and remove the need for costly
distribution networks. UNHCR, which once liked refugees to stay in
easy-to-reach camps, now says it prefers them to lead a normal life in
More refugees mingle with local people and more than 80% flee to poor
countries already struggling to provide for their own citizens. Helping
them increasingly resembles development aid, explains António Guterres,
the head of UNHCR. Rather than providing services just for people
registered with it, the agency works ever more closely with the
governments and populations in countries that people flee to.
Before the war started in Syria, the UNHCR gave money to the
country’s government to employ more teachers and doctors in schools and
hospitals frequented by Iraqis. To prevent people getting envious, some
charities set up services for all locals. The 2,800 people who took part
in activities in Damascus for traumatised children set up by
International Medical Corps, a California-based charity, were a mixture
of Iraqis and Syrians.
David Apollo Kazungu, Uganda’s Commissioner for Refugees, says it no
longer makes sense to treat refugees as a humanitarian issue. “Those who
stay for years throw up developmental problems for us, such as how to
find enough land, water and jobs for everyone,” he argues. Uganda has
already tried to improve the lot for the nearly 200,000 refugees it
hosts by placing them in settlements rather than camps, and by giving
them land to farm.
Mr Kazungu believes that naturalising long-term refugees in the
mainly poor countries they flee to would allow them to work and give
them access to all public services. In return, he says, rich countries
should give development cash and advice to host countries. His
government wants to make it easier for refugees to apply for Ugandan
citizenship, something Tanzania has already allowed. Regional agreements
could help neighbouring countries share the burden of accepting extra
Better treatment for refugees may be no easier to sell in poor
countries than rich ones. But officials reckon that accepting refugees
could turn a burden into a benefit. Allowing them to work would increase
economic activity and as citizens they would have to pay taxes. In some
countries UNHCR is trying to move things in this direction. With
funding from IKEA it has set up centres in Sudan and Bangladesh that
offer training rather than handouts. The agency also asks host countries
to let refugees work legally.
Though many refugees long for a more normal life, permanent solutions
will not always work. Victims of the world’s most protracted modern
refugee crisis, the Palestinians, for instance, do not want a new
nationality because it would erase their right of return. More than six
decades on, grandchildren proudly display the keys to their families’