The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has reported on World Refugee Day, June 20, that persecution and conflict in countries such as Syria and Afghanistan has raised the total number of refugees and internally displaced people world-wide to a record 65.3 million at the end of last year.
Turkey had the largest number for the second year running at 2.5 million people, nearly all from neighbouring Syria.
Pakistan had a residual 1.6 million from Afghanistan while Lebanon hosted 1.1 million. This 65.3 million is the highest figure since the World War II, itself the harbinger of the greatest refugee populace in global history till that point.
In 2014, the refugee and displaced persons total had already reached 60 million, but 2015 saw Lebanon, Turkey and Europe stagger under the weight of a human deluge of proportions seldom seen before.
The UNHCR has appealed to global leaders to bend their backs to end the wars that are fanning this mass exodus.
The UNHCR report starkly highlights the scale of the problem by pointing out that on average 24 people had been displaced per minute last year, which amounts to 34,000 people per day.
Global displacement has doubled since 1997 and risen by 50 percent since 2011, when the Syrian war began.
Counting the global population as 7.349 billion currently, one out of every 113 people on Earth is now internally displaced or a refugee.
They currently number more than the populations of Britain or France. Of the total 65.3 million, 40.8 million remain within their own country (internally displaced), 21.3 million have fled across borders as refugees, while the remaining are asylum-seekers.
The world’s largest and oldest refugee populace is still the Palestinians at over five million, dating back to the creation of Israel in 1948.
Syria now has the dubious distinction of being next on the list with 4.9 million refugees, followed by Afghanistan (2.7 million) and Somalia (1.1 million).
These figures, horrendous as they are, do not convey fully the human stories and images that flesh out this desperate exodus of humanity from war-torn countries.
The issue, as seen in the refugee crisis in Europe of late, is fraught since it encompasses religion, race, immigration, etc. It is politically charged and has been used to justify xenophobia, scapegoating, hatred and intolerance.
In the US and Europe, it has fuelled the rise of neo-fascism (Donald Trump and the far right respectively).
Leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, who took a compassionate view of the refugees’ plight, stand out as the exception, and not without being attacked at home and in Europe by the far right.
Pakistan too has hosted millions of Afghan refugees since the 1980s following the Soviet invasion and occupation of their country.
Although their numbers have dwindled relatively over the years, they continue to be singled out from time to time, and especially when a major terrorist incident occurs or the issue of tackling criminality reappears on the agenda.
This trend seems to be increasing of late. Since Pakistan’s recent crackdown on Afghans entering Pakistan illegally (a practice allowed since 1947), the hostility towards such persons has received an ‘official’ fillip (250 Afghans who entered Pakistan illegally were deported on June 21 after waiting for days for the border skirmishes at Torkham to subside).
Advisor on Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz said in a television interview the other day that Afghan refugee camps had become safe havens for terrorists and that the Afghan refugees had brought drugs, guns and instability to Pakistan.
While such perceptions are not new and may even carry weight, creeping weariness with the long standing presence of millions of Afghan refugees on our soil notwithstanding (during which time successive governments virtually allowed these refugees a free run inside Pakistan), we should refrain from making sweeping statements that in today’s context resemble the vitriol being heaped on the refugees’ heads in the west.
Nowhere in the world is the life of a refugee a bed of roses. Displaced people all over the world, no matter what their country of origin or circumstances, would prefer to go home if it is possible and viable.
But to achieve this desirable goal, conflicts and wars, old and new, that have given birth to this immense and continuing human tragedy, would have to be brought to a close and the powers-that-be to abjure the kind of regime change and direct military interventions that have given rise to today’s enormous refugee phenomenon in the first place. -Business Recorder