Levels of population upheaval are at their highest for decades, creating misery for millions. What are the root causes of the crisis and how can we prevent
Filippo Grandi became the 11th United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on 1 January 2016. He served as Commissioner General of the United
Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, UNRWA, from 2010 to 2014, after having been the organisation’s Deputy Commissioner General
Many people will remember 2015 as the year of Europe’s refugee and migration crisis, when more than a million people arrived by boat and made their way north under chaotic conditions – climbing over fences, sitting for days at railway stations, waiting in the rain to be registered at border checkpoints.
For the first time in many years, refugees became the centre of international attention. Countries en route imposed restrictive measures and closed borders with the result that tens of thousands of refugees and migrants are now stranded in Greece, living in dire conditions.
But this is not only a European phenomenon, nor is it a recent one. The refugee crisis has been growing in scale and complexity for years. Over the past 10 years, forced displacement figures jumped from 38 million in 2005 to over 60 million in 2015.
In the past five years alone, at least 15 conflicts have erupted or reignited: eight in Africa, three in the Middle East, one in Europe and three in Asia. As the world’s most protracted crises continue to fester without lasting solutions, more and more people are stuck in exile for years on end, living half-lives: more than 4.8 million Syrians, 2.5 million Afghans, one million Somalis, to name a few. Third-generation refugees are born in countries such as Algeria, Kenya, Pakistan or Sudan, facing uncertain futures. The Palestinian refugee question remains unresolved 68 years after its beginning.
Today’s massive population movements must be seen in a broader context. The world is undergoing profound geopolitical, environmental and technological transformations. While violent conflict is the most important reason behind displacement, many other, increasingly interlinked causes also drive people from their homes. These range from human rights abuses, poor governance, impunity, ethnic marginalisation and extremism of all sorts, to environmental degradation, water scarcity, food insecurity and competition over resources – with climate change a force multiplier. The list grows as new causes for displacement emerge, as in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where organised crime and gang violence have reached such shocking proportions that tens of thousands of people now seek asylum abroad.
At the same time, globalisation is asymmetrical. Money, goods and services move freely, but people face enormous obstacles. This is a cruel paradox: few movements are as restricted as those of human beings, but conflict and violence force more and more people to flee. This leaves many with no other option but to put their lives into the hands of smugglers. Around theworld, criminal gangs are making billions out of this desperate situation, in complete disregard for human lives and dignity.
Root causes: the Syrian example
The Syria conflict has accounted for the single biggest increase in global forced displacement in decades. More than 4.8 million Syrian refugees are registered in neighbouring countries; many have moved to Europe and beyond; and some 6.6 million Syrians are internally displaced, meaning that nearly half the pre-war population of the country has been uprooted.
Syrians are the largest group arriving in Europe today, making up nearly half of the arrivals. The huge spike in Syrians coming to Europe caught many unprepared, but the main reasons behind it are no big surprise.
The first is desperation. After five years of conflict, Syrians are losing hope, observing with growing pessimism the slow and frequently interrupted progress of the peace negotiations. Nearly two thirds of those coming to Europe today arrive straight from Syria, only transiting through the neighbouring countries for the time it takes to organise their onward journey.
A second factor is poverty. A recent study by the World Bank and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Lebanon and Jordan noted that Syrians were essentially stuck in a poverty trap with grim prospects for improvement. Nine in 10 Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan were living below the respective national poverty lines. This leads families to adopt negative coping strategies, ranging from child labour to early marriage and often exploitative informal employment. The lack of education for their children is one of the main motivations cited by Syrian refugees for making the onward journey to Europe.
The third aspect contributing to the increase in secondary movements is a significant funding shortfall affecting humanitarian agencies. With most refugee assistance programmes barely funded at 50%, aid organisations have been unable to meet even the most basic needs.
The effects of all these factors, very significant by themselves, are amplified by the smuggling rings preying on the despair of people who have already lost so much.
The challenges of the response
Last year, the European Union made some sound decisions in trying to manage the refugee and migration flows in a manner that was both orderly and principled. But some members did not show the required solidarity to share this responsibility, and to distribute refugees and asylum seekers evenly. The movement was left unchecked, and there were major flows to only a few countries: Austria, Germany and Sweden. With public opinion in Europe becoming increasingly alarmed, the focus shifted from welcoming refugees to tightening restrictions and closing borders.
It is worth recalling the impact of these population movements in countries such as Lebanon (population 4 million) or Jordan (6 million), which between them have received some 1.7 million Syrian refugees, but have nowhere near the same resources to assist them. One in four people living in Lebanon today are refugees. To such demographic and social shocks are added the economic impact, estimated by the World Bank at $7.5 billion in losses for the Lebanese economy alone. With vastly overstretched public infrastructure in the health, education and sanitation sectors, as well as significant additional strain on government budgets, both Jordan and Lebanon face serious consequences for the very fabric of their economies and societies.
In Europe, the influx has highlighted shortcomings and strained public resources, but this remains a manageable crisis, provided there is a common response from EU members. UNHCR has advocated for a joint, comprehensive approach, based on solidarity and responsibility sharing. The most important elements are a significant increase in the capacity to receive, register and screen the new arrivals at the European Union’s borders and to identify those in need of protection, including for relocation to other EU countries. To ensure the credibility and effectiveness of the asylum system, effective and dignified return mechanisms must be set up for people who are found not to have protection needs. Tougher measures to crack down on smugglers and traffickers must be accompanied by an increase in safe and regular avenues to find protection in Europe, such as resettlement, humanitarian admission or humanitarian visas, private sponsorship programmes, as well as academic scholarships or family reunion opportunities.
There has been a welcome increase in the recognition that to address the refugee movements, Europe and other regions must step up their engagement with the first countries of asylum, especially those neighbouring Syria, and also those bordering other conflict areas.
In February, the international community pledged $12 billion at the Supporting Syria and the Region international conference in London for humanitarian aid inside Syria and neighbouring countries, and to improve education and socio-economic opportunities for refugees and support their hosts.
At UNHCR’s High-Level Meeting on Global Responsibility Sharing through Pathways for Admission of Syrian Refugees, states announced important alternatives that could provide a solution and serve as a model to help other refugee populations.
The focus on Syria’s refugee crisis and its ramifications in Europe must not obscure the many other examples of forced displacement. Ethiopia, Kenya, Pakistan, Iran and other countries have hosted large numbers of refugees for decades, and they need more and better support to shoulder this responsibility. The millions of internally displaced people in countries as diverse as Colombia, South Sudan and Afghanistan, should not be forgotten.
The next milestone on the road to addressing forced displacement is the World Humanitarian Summit in May in Istanbul. UNHCR has welcomed the United Nations Secretary-General’s strong call for political leaders to take responsibility for preventing and solving conflicts. Addressing the root causes of conflict would go a long way in ending forced displacement.
Here is where the G7 can play an important and catalytic role. Immediately after the World Humanitarian Summit, G7 leaders will meet in Ise-Shima, Japan. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals, promising “to leave no one behind”, feature prominently on the G7 agenda.
Preventing conflict and ending forced displacement are key objectives of the 2030 Agenda. It is my hope that the G7 will provide the necessary leadership
to transform them into action. Other opportunities to show such leadership will be at the United Nations General Assembly in September, where the
High-Level Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants will convene, and the US Presidential Summit on Strengthening the International
Response to the Global Refugee Situation. Leadership and political will are essential to end the violent conflicts that keep millions in exile.
This, together with genuine political efforts to address the root causes of conflicts, must be everyone’s priority.