In its yearly ‘Global Trends’ report, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) states that there were 65.6 million refugees in 2016. Never before had so many people been fleeing persecution, conflicts, violence or violation of human rights. Compared to 1997, the number of refugees has doubled. But who are these people? Where are they living? World’s Best News gives a full explanation.
A world on fire?
Media around the globe present the news prominently. They mostly copy the first paragraphs of a UNHCR press release to communicate the news that, compared to 2015, another 300,000 people were uprooted from their homes last year. The pictures and videos accompanying these news reports show us boats packed with refugees crossing the Mediterranean or people living in the deplorable circumstances of makeshift refugee camps. They confirm our perception that the world is on fire and that all refugees are living in miserable conditions. People who are ill-informed can only observe that 65.6 million persons must currently be wandering around the world.
A tsunami of refugees?
World’s Best News is committed to putting the developments regarding refugees into perspective. We want to unravel the numerous doom scenarios described with terms such as ‘asylum tsunami’, ‘flooded by refugees’ and ‘the world is on fire’. Our intention is not to trivialise refugees’ suffering, but to inform the people living here, who in our opinion are ill-informed. On the basis of the information from the UNHCR report, we will highlight six facts about the refugee issue.
1. Is it true that 65.6 million destitute refugees are wandering around the world?
40.3 million out of the 65.6 million refugees are still living in their country of origin, despite the fact that they were forced to leave their house, their village or their town. They have been internally displaced. For instance: Syrians from Aleppo who are now living in Damascus or the more than 7 million Colombians who, in the course of thirty years of civil war and serious crime, have moved to safer parts of their country.
Among the other refugees, 22.5 million are living outside their country of origin. For instance: 1.4 million Afghans who, by the end of the seventies, crossed the border to Pakistan or 170,000 out of nearly half a million Eritreans who found refuge in Ethiopia and Sudan. Finally, there are 2.8 million asylum seekers who are awaiting their official refugee status in another country: nearly 600,000 in Germany, 500,000 in the United States and 10,000 in the Netherlands.
2. So most refugees are living outside of Europe?
Absolutely. Germany is the only European country featuring in the top ten of countries hosting the largest refugee populations. Turkey is ranked first with 2.9 million refugees. Besides, Lebanon faces the biggest pressure, as one out of six people is a refugee, compared to one out of 361 people in Belgium, in 2015.
3. How do most refugees live? In the street? In refugee camps?
63 percent of all refugees are living in normal houses. For example: a family from Yugoslavia that came to Western Europe in the early nineties or a Palestinian family in Cairo or Amman that fled from Israel in 1948. 29 percent of the refugees are living in camps that have been set up and are monitored by refugee organizations, as is the case with numerous Syrians in neighbouring Jordan. 4 percent of all refugees are living in some form of temporary reception centre, including asylum seekers’ centres in Belgium. Another 4 percent have to survive in self-made shelters such as huts or tents. The situation of the latter group is the most worrying of all.
Another 4 percent have to survive in self-made shelters such as huts or tents. The situation of the latter group is the most worrying of all.
4. How is it possible that 65.6 million people are refugees today, as compared to ‘only’ 33.9 million in 1997? Has the world become so much worse?
No, the world has not become more dangerous. Today, both the number of fatalities caused by war and the number of major conflicts are even smaller than in 1997, with only half of the number of refugees at that time. Nowadays, the majority of victims and refugees come from three countries: Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since the Second World War, war and violence have constantly decreased. In 1951, the year when the number of refugees was registered for the first time, the number of war fatalities was 22 out of 100,000 worldwide. By 2016, that number had fallen to 2.1 out of 100,000. Yet in 1951, there were only 2 million refugees, as compared to more than 65 million today.
5. How is it possible that there are so many refugees in a world that is becoming increasingly safer?
One of the reasons is that today people effectively have the opportunity to flee. If you are afraid of violence, you can simply disappear by plane, by train or by car. The time of journeys by foot or ox carts lies far behind us.
Thanks to social media, people are informed at an earlier stage on what to expect and how to cope with it. They can even anticipate potential violence. In October 2014, there were heavy fights in order to take the Syrian city of Kobani. Nearly eighty percent of the city was destroyed. Between 35 and 59 citizens were killed. In fact, this number was relatively low because nearly all 400,000 inhabitants of Kobani had left in time.
Today people effectively have the opportunity to flee. If you are afraid of violence, you can simply disappear by plane, by train or by car. The time of journeys by foot or ox carts lies far behind us.
A completely different reason is that far fewer refugees are added to the list than there are deletions. For example: Burundian refugees who fled to neighbouring Tanzania in 1973 or Vietnamese refugees crossing the border to China in 1997. Even if they have been living at the other side of the border for 44 or 20 years respectively, officially they are still considered refugees. The same goes for the nearly two million Afghans who fled to Pakistan and Iran forty years ago.
The largest group of ‘long-term refugees’ is the group of 5.3 million Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948. 40,000 persons of the original group of Palestinian refugees are still alive. Hence, no more than 0.7 percent of these refugees have fled. More than 99 percent of this group is made up of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Out of a total of 22.5 million refugees living in another country today, nearly 17 million people fall within the category of ‘long-term refugees’.
6. Are refugees taken care of?
Not all refugees are in need of care. A restaurant owner in Utrecht who fled Afghanistan or a dentist in Turkey originating from Syria are perfectly capable of taking care of themselves. This is very different for the more than 100,000 Syrian refugees in the Al Za’atari camp in Jordan. Practically all refugees in this camp are under protection of the UNHCR. The UN refugee organization provides shelter, food and medical care as well as advice about asylum procedures.
However, the quality of care can differ from camp to camp. Whereas refugees in Al Za’atari have high-speed internet, psychological assistance and supermarkets where they can pay by iris scan, the situation for the refugees from Rwanda and Burundi in the Malawian Dzaleka camp is very miserable. Yet the good news is that the UNHCR can offer protection to an increasing number of refugees. Today 36.6 million out of the 40.8 million ‘internally displaced persons’ can count on support from the UN organization. Ten years ago, in 2006, this was the case for only a quarter of all displaced persons.