There are now 59.5 million refugees worldwide, according to the latest figures from UNHCR. Ahead of World Refugee Day, 20 June 2015, we assembled a roundtable of experts — Prof. Ronald Skeldon, Dr. Melissa Siegel, and Dr. Katie Kuschminder — to put the major issues in perspective: from Myanmar to the Mediterranean, statelessness to child refugees. Below is an edited transcript and various media drawn from the roundtable, which was moderated by Howard Hudson.
In 2012, UNHCR said there were more than 43 million refugees worldwide. That number is now closer to 60 million. Are we seeing the largest refugee flows since the 1970s or the 1940s?
Ronald Skeldon: We’re talking about the largest movement of displaced persons probably since the Second World War. Many of those displaced are displaced within the boundaries of their own countries – what we call IDPs. In conflict situations the majority of those displaced will be within the boundaries of their own countries. Those who manage to leave their own countries and gain access to other countries will be asylum seekers and those who are between the origin and the destination countries will gain access to another country through the refugee channel. So there are various categories of refugees here, and all of them are forcibly displaced, and all of them will increase in conflict or in crisis situations of one type of another. That’s what we’re witnessing at the moment.
Melissa Siegel: What is important here is that there’s been more pressure put on resources than ever before, so organisations such as UNHCR, the Danish Refugee Council, the Norwegian Refugee Council or anyone else doing humanitarian work now is dealing with a crisis situation where they have to support so many more people than they have had to in the past. UNHCR for instance has camps or has groups that have been displaced in protected displacement for a long time that they need to always be giving support to. Now at the same time there is this emergency situation so a lot of these humanitarian organisations are seeing their resources extremely stretched. Besides the fact that the hosting countries are receiving more and more people and now have a huge case load, think about Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, who have just taken on definitely taken on most of the crisis burden.
How is the debate becoming politicised in Europe?
Melissa Siegel: The politicisation of the debate in Europe is absolutely not helpful and the main problem here is that there is a complete misconception particularly in Europe about really the magnitude of this situation and what kind of flows are actually coming to Europe. I mean it’s a drop in the bucket of the real situation and by no means is Europe dealing with the same kind of situation that the neighbouring countries are dealing with and obviously Europe is in a much better position from a resources perspective and from a capacity perspective to actually be able to deal with these flows than the neighbouring countries.
Katie Kuschminder: One thing that happens too in the media is that all the flows are sort of coupled together in terms of who is coming to Europe and it’s not necessarily the case that everyone coming to each country is coming for the same reasons. There are people who are coming for very legitimate purposes from war torn countries who are seeking refugee protection and they can be different from people coming for other reasons.
Ronald Skeldon: The example of Myanmar is very pertinent. We tend to focus on Europe because we are in Europe but we must not forget that this is happening in other parts of the world. And in the last 25 years or so we’ve seen a decline in the number of displaced people across Asia simply because of its development. But now we’re seeing a resurgence and it’s essentially associated with the opening up of Burma, with Burma beginning to exercise greater control over its own borders, that military suppression has been lifted to some extent and unfortunate national feelings have grown towards the Rohingya in particular, [a Muslim minority in a largely Buddhist country].
The Thais are not interested in giving loans for land, Malaysia has traditionally pushed back boats into the ocean. There are names of camps along the borders where there unfortunate people were kept but whether this is actually the result of a deliberate policy of persecution in Myanmar is an interesting issue. Whether it’s driven by people making money – because whenever there is a tragic situation there are always groups who are going to make money out of misery, human traffickers, people smugglers. It’s modern day slavery if you like because they are promising opportunities to these people that don’t exist so these people go onto boats and then they are held captive and so the families pay ransom. That’s why you have these camps along the Malay Thai border.
Quite clearly, there are civil conflicts as we are seeing in Syria, there are people fleeing for their very lives. I don’t quite think it’s the same in Southeast Asia. The countries are opening up, there are prejudices developing, nationalist feelings, and there are people making money out of this. The Asian situation I think is slightly different from the Middle East. There’s exploitation in both areas. It’s a very complex situation. It’s what the UNCHR calls mixed flows, because people flowing from the eastern horn of Africa, obviously from the countries of what we call the Middle East, are mixing with people trying to come to Europe from West Africa, so they are economic migrants. So they are being mixed and there are people making money out of these flows of people.
Are we looking at a breakdown of international agreements?
Katie Kuschminder: I don’t think we are looking at a breakdown of the international agreements. I think that most countries in Europe are still following the processing in the way that they would normally do it. I think that the difference with the past, up until the 1990s, is that you could fly more easily and apply for asylum at the port of entry at the airport. Now it is much more difficult to do with visa regulation and increased border controls.
One of the sentiments in Europe is that they should stay there, they shouldn’t be coming here. Why are people crossing the Mediterranean when they could go to a refugee camp in Turkey? In my opinion European need to remember that the conditions in those camps are not very good. If you have children who are trying to go to school… people are trying to do what’s best for their families, to give their families good lives. I think it is important to remember what you would yourself do. Wouldn’t you try to get into a country where you would have an opportunity to educate your children and start a new life or would you stay? The Guardian put up an app where you are asked what would you do if you were a Syrian refugee and here are your options and what are the different factors.
Melissa Siegel: The burden sharing in this situation is so skewed towards the countries in those regions. Some of the key destinations previously like Jordan and Lebanon have now actually closed their borders. They are no longer allowing Syrians in. All of a sudden 25% of their populations have become Syrians, more or less overnight. If you would put that in European perspective that would be within two years everyone from Poland moving to Southern England. That’s the magnitude of the flows that we are talking about. Now that these countries have closed their borders means that there are even fewer options for Syrians getting out the country. In this case you can think more about trapped people, people who are actually trapped in Syrian in a terrible situation who don’t even have the possibility of movement at this point. That’s also important to realise.
Katie Kuschminder: In Lebanon they don’t have so much as refugee camps, so people have to support themselves. So you have run out of savings and can’t get a job, you actually have no means of supporting yourselves or your family. It’s very different from refugee situations in Europe where it is recognised that people don’t necessarily work right away.
Almost half of all refugees, 46%, are children. Are there special regulations and agreements for unaccompanied minors?
Katie Kuschminder: In the case of unaccompanied minors, there are special regulations applying in Europe. We are talking about unaccompanied minors from very specific countries such as Afghanistan where there have been large cohorts of unaccompanied minors. There are a lot of unaccompanied minors in the streets of countries such as Turkey and Greece who are not receiving the type of social protection that they are entitled to.
Melissa Siegel: Almost half of the refugee populations are minors and if you don’t put them in safe housing with access to education and healthcare, we’re talking about lost generations. And these are children coming from families who generally have human capital, who come from educated backgrounds, so if we all of a sudden are going to see a kind of deskilling and a real loss of human capital in this area. If the international community continues not to step up as they should in these areas, it is something that is detrimental for society as a whole to lose a whole generation.
Another aspect is that 3.5 million people are now said to be stateless; some estimates put the figure at 12 million. Is statelessness the least reported aspect of the refugee crisis?
Melissa Siegel: Statelessness is a big issue and comes in many different forms. One of the ways in which people are becoming stateless nowadays is through children being born from mothers from certain countries where there may be a sexual exploitation situation or the father may be unknown. In many countries the nationality goes through the father and if the father is unknown then the baby ends up immediately in a stateless situation. That is something that is very important to be aware of. A lot of origin countries have started changing their policy so that nationality can be traced to the mothers, and it is also important for European countries to be aware of these situations where if a child is going to be born in a situation of statelessness, that they give them a nationality. And many do do that.
Ronald Skeldon: Compared to 20 years ago, there is a big change in destination countries. In the world post-2008 which as a devastating crisis for many families in Europe, we’ve seen a swing to the right, in so many different countries, even in traditional countries of destination such as Australia have swung to the right so there is a decline I think in generosity. There are some people who are generous or who like to think that they are generous, but given a change in economic circumstances, both individuals and institutions and possibly institutions using the crisis as an excuse, are less accommodating to groups that might be seen as heading their way. (It’s very cynical because as soon as they set foot in Australia, they are taken into asylum but they are not if they are held in Papua New Guinea. It’s very cynical because they are obviously headed to Australia.)
Katie Kuschminder: Several countries that have had long histories of being open to refugees are really now changing their attitudes and policies. We’ve seen that in resettlement numbers.
Melissa Siegel: If we look at history and periods where there have been large displacements of people, I think of the Vietnamese boat people crisis, you really saw the world powers come together to resettle millions of people in a pretty effective way and many developed countries resettled these people. Nowadays we are basically seeing the opposite of that happening and so many developed countries saying: No, not in my backyard.
The fact that the EU is now discussing and concerned about taking 20,000 Syrian resettlees every year for the next five years is just absolutely ridiculous. I mean, these are tiny numbers. It’s not even an effective solution to the current problem and even with those tiny numbers European governments are complaining about the numbers that they will be receiving. So I think that we are seeing a complete attitude shift here.
Ronald Skeldon: The international community was very generous in the Vietnamese boat crisis and the most generous country of all was the US but they had many ulterior motives because in many ways they felt responsible for creating the crisis in the first place. I think possibly among the develop world, now that colonisation is ancient history we don’t feel that we’ve been involved so directly. Globalisation defuses the guilt if you like and so the developed world feels that this is not really our problem. Vietnam was clearly our problem, Malaya was our problem and so on. It was a different world back then.
It is no coincidence that it is the developing countries themselves that have to pick up the pieces but then again the developing countries that now have become developed economies are keeping their heads down. You can look at the new wealth in certain parts of the world. There are very wealthy economies that joined the OECD, such as Japan and Korea. Eastern countries will have to play their role more and more, given their increasing wealth.
What are your main priorities and policy recommendations for World Refugee Day?
Melissa Siegel: The priority now is to create more awareness on the individual and national level on what’s really going on in the world and who is really carrying the burden. Also a bigger awareness of what it really means to be a refugee and how the lives of displaced people really are. I think for many people living in the developed world, this is a foreign concept. They see something on TV but it is so far removed from them that they can’t properly understand what is going on. I think we need to have a lot more recognition and awareness of what is going on there.
Ronald Skeldon: I absolutely support that, the important thing is that we don’t take our eyes off the ball, that we don’t lose sight of what is important. I think there is an unwritten concern that by 2050 there will be more people in Sub-Saharan Africa than there will be in China. There is growing concern about what that means for a country where government institutions are very weak and what this implies for the international community, because the results could be very problematic, depending on which way we are going to go. I don’t see an easy solution to this. But clearly it is not a separation from wealthy away from poor. We’re going to have to engage with these people in a much more constructive way, but what that way is not entirely clear.
Katie Kuschminder: I think we can more meaningfully engage and provide assistance. A lot of scholars have come out and said these are the steps forward: there could be more temporary protection, there is much more that governments can do.
FULL AUDIO FILE
Audio and video: UNU / H.Hudson
Images and transcript: UNU / S.Brodin