A duty to protect refugees is enshrined in our domestic law
On Friday and Saturday our news channels relayed images of chaos at the Greece-Macedonia border. These events follow more tragedies in the Mediterranean this week and scenes of young men trying to scale the security fences that surround the port and Eurotunnel at Calais.
Almost all sectors of the press referred to these people as migrants. Yes, they are migrants, in that they were attempting to migrate. But most of those assembled at the Greek border and perhaps the majority in Italy, Greece and at Calais belong to a specific sub-group – forced migrants or refugees.
Almost all of those who gathered at the Greece-Macedonia border were Syrians. Most of them didn’t want to make this journey at all, and would rather have stayed at home, but they couldn’t.
It is now time that western governments admitted that we are facing a global refugee crisis. In June, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) published its annual refugee survey. Its data showed that forced displacement was at its highest level ever recorded – more than at the end of the Second World War or the partition of India.
The number of forced migrants (asylum-seekers, refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs)) at the end of 2014 had risen to a 59.5 million compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million in 2004.
The war in Syria is one of the main reasons why global refugee numbers have increased. Today, about 7.6 million Syrians are internally displaced and a further 4 million are refugees, mostly in Turkey (1.8 million), Lebanon (1.2 million), Jordan (650,000) and Iraq, with 250,000 Syrian refugees in addition to its own displaced citizens.
Although many more Syrians have tried to enter EU countries in recent months, their numbers in Europe are small compared with these four Middle Eastern countries. Since the conflict began Germany has admitted the largest number of Syrian asylum-seekers – 41,000 in 2014 alone – followed by Sweden and Denmark. The UK has taken in about 220 programme refugees evacuated from the region and a further 6,000 asylum-seekers who have made their own way here.
On top of the war in Syria and Iraq, a number of other wars have contributed to the growing refugee crisis. In Africa these include conflicts in the Central African Republic (420,000 refugees and 370,000 IDPs), Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo (400,000 refugees and 2.9 million IDPs), Eritrea, Libya (450,000 IDPs), Mali, north east Nigeria (1.5 million IDPs), Somalia (1.1 million refugees and 1.1 million IDPs) Sudan (650,000 refugees and 3.1 million IDPs) and South Sudan (750,000 refugees and 1.5 million IDPs).
Elsewhere, many thousands of people have been displaced in Colombia (400,000 refugees and 6 million IDPs), Mexico, Ukraine (750,000 refugees and 1.5 million IDPs), Yemen (270,000 refugees and 400,000 IDPs), Afghanistan (2.7 million refugees and 850,000 IDPs), Burma (480,000 refugees and 660,000 IDPs) and Pakistan (1.8 million IDPs).
A duty to protect refugees is enshrined in domestic law in many of the world’s countries. Some 148 nations have signed the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. These treaties define refugees as those who have ‘a well-founded fear of persecution’ and set out the responsibilities of nations towards asylum-seekers and refugees.
The UNHCR ensures that signatory states uphold these international laws and also coordinates assistance to refugees in poor countries. Along with other aid agencies, UNHCR staff also try to provide internally displaced people with food, clean water and shelter. However, helping IDPs is usually made difficult by poor security and by their high mobility and wide dispersal within war-torn countries.
Often hungry and facing on-going danger, the life of an internally displaced person is usually far worse than that of a refugee. As a consequence some of them eventually flee further from conflict zones. They become refugees in countries such as Greece, Turkey and Lebanon, Lebanon is itself a fragile country where 232 people in every 1,000 are now refugees, the biggest proportion of any nation.
The scenes on the Greek border highlight the need for a better response to forced migration. We need to admit that the policies of western governments have had a role in worsening some refugee crises. (Our government’s support for Saudi Arabia, deeply involved in the Yemen conflict, is just one example). There needs to be more concerted diplomatic efforts made to end some of these wars.
Our governments need to fund conflict resolution and stabilisation measures that prevent situations worsening or help countries move towards peace. As a country that sees itself as a moral leader that upholds human rights, the UK has a responsibility towards refugees and displaced people. The UNHCR and other aid agencies need much more funding, and pledges of money need to be honoured.
Unpopular as it may be, the UK needs to accept more Syrian programme refugees, to take the pressure off Lebanon. And we need to describe those waiting on the Greek border as human beings and as refugees in need of protection, remembering that food and security are basic human needs that we all have the right to seek.
Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward
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