The world is witnessing the worst refugee crisis since World War II, with almost 60 million people driven from their homes by wars and persecution. The number, announced in mid-June by the U.N. refugee agency, staggers the imagination — it is equal to the combined population of California and Florida. Or every man, woman and child in Spain and Portugal.
They flee in overcrowded boats across the Mediterranean and the Strait of Malacca and the Andaman Sea. Thousands have drowned, 1,500 in the first four months of this year in the Mediterranean alone. Others have died crossing scorching deserts on their way to the coast. Those who make the perilous journey have something in common — they are unwanted in most of the countries they hoped would offer safety and a better life.
Governments are divided on how to deal with the unprecedented flood of refugees. European leaders have so far failed to strike a balance between humanitarian sentiments and pressure from citizens who are, by and large, hostile towards refugees. Halfway around the world, keeping refugees out is official policy in Australia. Its waters are patrolled by naval vessels which intercept refugee boats and send them back. Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand followed similar policies but softened their “no entry” stand late in May.
Most of the boat people in Asia are Rohingya, a Muslim minority group that has been subject to harsh persecution by the government of predominantly Buddhist Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) for decades. The government denies the Rohingya citizenship. They live in the coastal state of Rakhine in miserable conditions that have drawn criticism from human rights groups as well as President Barack Obama. But getting authoritarian governments to change their behavior is easier said than done.
The outlook for ending the refugee crisis is bleak as long as millions and millions of people fear for their lives or struggle with discrimination and poverty. Over the past few years, conditions have deteriorated in country after country.
In its June report, the UN refugee agency noted that “in the past five years, at least 15 conflicts have erupted or reignited: eight in Africa (Côte d'Ivoire, Central African Republic, Libya, Mali, northeastern Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan and this year in Burundi); three in the Middle East (Syria, Iraq, and Yemen); one in Europe (Ukraine) and three in Asia (Kyrgyzstan, and in several areas of Myanmar and Pakistan).”
It added: "Few of these crises have been resolved and most still generate new displacement.”
The main reason for a sharp increase in refugee numbers since 2011 has been the civil war in Syria, a multi-sided conflict that has killed at least 200,000 people and sent almost four million Syrians to flee their country. There is no end in sight to the blood-letting. There is no prospect either that the principal exit route for desperate Syrians and Africans will be closed in the foreseeable future.
That is through Libya, which slid into lawlessness and anarchy after the 2011 Western intervention in a civil war that brought an end to Muammar Gaddafi’s iron-fisted rule. With Libya’s coast now virtually uncontrolled, this is where refugees from the Middle East and Africa set out for the perilous Mediterranean crossing, mostly to Italy and Greece. Both countries are appealing for a system of burden-sharing among the 28 members of the European Union.
That would require amending a 2013 EU law which provides for asylum seekers to stay in the first European country they enter and makes that country responsible for processing applications and housing refugees.
So far, the focus of the EU (and others) has been on stopping people smugglers rather than on finding ways to absorb refugees and distributing them according to a yet to be developed quota system. This ranking of priorities has angered human rights groups. Amnesty International termed as “shameful” the international community’s response to the exodus. The group accused governments of pursuing “selfish political interests instead of showing human compassion.”
Pope Francis sounded a similar note at a general audience just a day after a meeting of European interior ministers who tried, unsuccessfully, to come to an agreement on how to handle new arrivals. The pope called on the international community to act in unity to prevent the causes of forced immigration.
He added: “And I invite everyone to ask for God’s pardon for those people and institutions who close the door to those who are seeking to be protected.”