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Refugee problem goes global as millions flee homelands

The plight of Syrian refugees may be dominating the news, but with the number of displaced people hitting record levels, it's just the tip of the iceberg

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November 24, 2016 23:21

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Click on the map above to open up an interactive infographic of the full figures

There have always been mass movements of people - think of the forced deportations from Israel to Babylon, or the two-way exodus between Pakistan and India in 1948 - but there has never been anything approaching the scale of what is happening now.

For every 122 humans on the planet, one is a refugee, displaced from their home, or seeking asylum. They total almost the entire population of Italy, which at 60 million is the 23rd most populous country in the world.

Last year saw the biggest jump in numbers of displaced people ever recorded

What causes people to leave their homes has always been war, famine, drought, and lack of work. What is different now is that the massive increase in population growth has been accompanied by advances in transport, and is now joined by the revolution in technology communication. The result - the greatest movement of peoples in history.

The figures from the UNHCR Global Trends report from June this year show the scale of the problem in 2014. Behind each statistic is a story, always of hope, often of desperation, and frequently of tragedy. The figures for 2015 will be even higher, especially concerning the Middle East and movement towards Europe.

The south has been moving north for decades now, a norm that has accelerated with the turmoil in the Middle East, but this is a global problem.

Last year, 2014, was a record. There were 59.5 million forcibly displaced people. This compares with 51.2 million in 2013. This is the biggest jump in numbers ever recorded, and half the people involved were children. Ten years ago the total figure was 37.5 million.

Last year's unprecedented rise was mainly down to the war in Syria. From there wave after wave of people have fled. The flow gains strength relative to the level and area of the fighting. From Syria (if we include 2015), four million people have poured into Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. From these countries, many have moved north-west into Europe following the now well-beaten, yet perilous path through Turkey, across the sea, and up through Italy and the Balkans.

Another 7.6 million people are displaced inside Syria and at least 250,000 have died. All this from a pre-civil war population of 22 million. Half of all Syrians are no longer in their homes.

After Syria the biggest flow of people has been from or within Afghanistan, 2.5 million, and Somalia, 1.1 million.

The past few years have shown how new technology, including mobile phones and GPS, has allowed refugees and migrants to stay in touch with each other to plot a course to a new life and then pass information on to family and friends.

Violence is the biggest driver of movement. In the past five years we have seen 15 conflicts either begin or continue. Among them, in Africa, are wars in Mali, Central African Republic, and Sudan.

Diplomats at the United Nations are now openly speaking about the possibility of genocide in Burundi where between 1993 and 2005 300,000 died. In the past four months 200,000 have fled.

Among the most overlooked of the multiple tragedies around the world is the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Almost six million people have died in conflict-related events there since war broke out in 1993. Renewed fighting this year has displaced another one million.

In the wider Middle East, as well as Syria, we see conflict in Libya, Egypt, Iraq, and Yemen. Conflict in Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan is displacing people from there, while the plight of the Rohingya Muslims in Burma is adding to the rising figures in south-east Asia.

In Europe, war in Ukraine has left 275,000 people displaced inside the country and more than 250,000 leaving, mostly for Russia, which received a record number of asylum claims.

As the UN's High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, puts it: "We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before."

And where do all these people go? Turkey hosts the most, 1.6 million, and rising. Iran and Pakistan are among the countries shouldering a disproportionate amount of the burden partially due to the now decades-long conflict in Afghanistan.

However, the exodus from Syria means it has overtaken Afghanistan as the world top source of refugees. Lebanon and Jordan are also creaking under the immense strain of so many people requiring help.

Inside the European Union zone Germany is receiving both the most people, and the most asylum requests. In 2014, 202,000 people applied, a 160 per cent increase from 2012. Sweden recorded 81,000 applications, Italy, 64,000, France, 64,000, Hungary, 42,000 and the UK, 32,000. Of those applying in the UK, the biggest percentage were from Eritrea (3,568), Pakistan (2,302), and Syria (2,204).

Already in 2015 the applications in Germany have risen to above 331,000 and in Hungary to 143,000.

Concerning the origins of people making applications, Kosovans were third in the list and Albanians fifth despite their not being involved in conflict. This has led to moves within the EU to say that those from Balkan countries will not be granted asylum.

The figures reflect the route the migrants take, the state of the economies of the target countries, and the way in which they are viewed by supplicants.

Britain is regarded as a place where work can be found, but is less attractive than other EU countries because it is outside of the Schengen Area and retains border controls. It is also more difficult to reach.

Most of the statistics quoted here will rise for 2015 and again next year. When the weather improves next spring we can expect another wave of people trying to cross the Mediterranean. This unprecedented movement is changing not just the demography of Europe but will likely impact in many ways, including political.

European unity has already taken some hammer blows this year. The attacks in Paris may have brought calls of support and solidarity, but they also caused the Polish Prime Minister designate to announce that Poland will refuse to have a refugee quota imposed on it.

It is likely that if Prime Minster Cameron calls the EU referendum for June, it will be because he knows that by July the refugee migrant story will be back on our front pages.

Finding positives in the various statistics from the UN and other bodies is difficult. However, amid the gloom there is some light.

For example, the intervention in Mali by the French military helped calm the situation and last year 155,000 people went home. How last week's terrorist outrage will affect
the situation it is too early to say.

Clearly, many people genuinely fleeing war, or "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality" and other UN criteria are seeking asylum, will want to return to their homes one
day. That of course requires stability and is one of many reasons why finally there is a genuine diplomatic push to get a settlement in Syria.

The south will continue to move north for economic reasons, but the flow will be stemmed if there is stability back home, and would become a trickle if there was global prosperity.

November 24, 2016 23:21

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