The number of people forcibly displaced worldwide surpassed a record 60 million — the most since the end of World War II. Twenty million of those displaced, half of which are children, are refugees fleeing wars, conflict and persecution.
Since early 2011, the main reason for the spike in refugees has been the war in Syria, which has caused millions to flee their homes and seek shelter in Europe and in neighboring countries. But many refugees are also fleeing one of the 15 conflicts around the world that have erupted or reignited over the last five years, often situations of decades-old instability and conflict like those in Afghanistan, Somalia, Central America and elsewhere.
The commotion caused by what has become an international crisis has left many world leaders struggling to find solutions. With millions of displaced people on the move, asylum systems are strained, and states with limited resources are tightening their borders.
Kelly Clements, deputy high commissioner of the United Nation’s Refugee Agency, has worked closely on the many complex refugee situations around the world. Humanosphere spoke to Clements about the current state of the world’s refugee crisis, and what is being done to remedy it.
What sets the refugee crisis in Europe apart from other refugee crises around the world?
From the U.N. perspective, it continues to be challenging, because the routes refugees took to reach safety changed often and smugglers and traffickers were in charge rather than the governments. We continue to believe it is a crisis that is manageable if it is managed; and it was not managed.
The EU was doing its best to try and reach a consensus to share the responsibility for refugees and migrants. The majority of people fleeing to Europe come from refugee producing countries. So it was not just Syria … it was also Afghanistan. Others from the Horn of Africa and elsewhere. So from our perspective, we have been very careful to talk about it as a refugee crisis, understanding that it is a very complex situation.
How important is it for EU member states to come to a consensus on a policy to handle the inflow of refugees?
That’s the way the European Union works: by consensus, where each state needs to agree. And so in terms of what has been proposed and adopted by the EU as a plan to manage it. … Chancellor Merkel, for example, has demonstrated great political leadership as have some of the Scandinavian states. They have gone beyond the lowest common denominator to make a decision. And it has still been quite difficult, as you’ve seen.
From the UNHCR perspective, we have offered our full support to the EU and its member states to try to ensure the right protection systems are in place. We’ve transitioned from a technical assistance role early in the crisis last year to an operational role in Europe.
How difficult is it for these refugees that get caught in this state of limbo, between reaching a country and waiting to obtain asylum?
I was in Serbia last month, at the time that the western Balkans route was closing. There were several thousand people trapped in the country. I can tell you, by just being there on the Macedonia-Serbia border, talking to refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, there was a real sense of desperation and bewilderment, not knowing what was going to happen next.
One of the greatest challenges for our team is that we normally have the answers to questions from refugees and others displaced. We normally can say, ‘here are your options. This is what’s going to happen to you.’ Unfortunately, we don’t know what’s going to happen now.
But we are working with governments, like the Serbian government, on registration, asylum applications, and individual cases. Serbia is in the process of looking at a new refugee law, which is something we’ve wholeheartedly encouraged… We’d like to see it continue to improve to process individual cases very quickly.
Xenophobia, of course, is a whole other barrier for refugees. How can this be addressed in EU countries that are more hesitant, or resistant, to accepting foreigners?
Obviously, it’s been something of great concern to us. And right now we need almost a social movement, with so much attention on refugees, to talk about the value and benefit that refugees bring to a community, as opposed to just a drain or a burden. This goes very much to leadership, in terms of messaging and what’s communicated by public leaders.
This is one of the reasons why the U.S. has resettled over 3 million refugees since the Vietnam War; they’re integrated into U.S. communities, there are employment opportunities provided, kids are put into school, they’re able to have their basic needs met, whether that’s health or other services. That’s the sort of approach, at a community grassroots level, that needs to happen elsewhere.
Some say Europe’s refugee crisis is the worst since WWII. Has this been overshadowing other refugee crises around the world?
Well, the global refugee crisis is the worst since WWII … we haven’t seen this level of displacement since then – 60 million people, which includes 40 million internally displaced and 20 million refugees, who are on the move, or are in situations of protracted displacement. … We now see that the average life cycle or period of displacement for a refugee is 25 years. … People are spending even generations, now, in displacement.
So, yes, it does overshadow other situations. What we have tried to do is not only talk about what happened in the Syrian context – which is the largest refugee and internally displaced situation – but also what we need to be doing in the Horn of Africa, in North Africa, even to Afghanistan, and parts of Asia, and the Middle East to provide support.
Does overshadowing, then, affect the ability to get funding for refugee crises that receive less international attention?
Yes. Just to give you a bit of perspective … our budget last year was about $7.2 billion and we received about $3.3 billion, so half of the needs we articulated to the international community went unmet. That covers everything from shelter, to protection against sexual violence and abuse, to education, to just basic needs like water, and health care.
Africa was the most underfunded of the operations that we manage. … The Central African Republic comes to mind specifically. It was 15 percent funded last year, which makes a big difference in people’s lives as we are unable to provide the life-sustaining aid needed.