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world wide wednesdays :: seeking refuge

it's been one of the leading stories on newscasts around the world for weeks: people rushing into europe, fleeing desperate conditions in their home countries and generating reactions from heartening to heartless, as well as discussions about the responsibility of wealthy nations to assist when people are forced from their homes. one of the things that tends to happen when such problems erupt, however, is that there is [rightfully] a rush to address the immediate need, but in the panic, it becomes hard to see exactly what's going on and why. i always like to caution people that these posts aren't exhaustive, but in a case like this, where things are changing really quickly and the issue involves millions of people and at least a dozen countries, let's just say that it's less exhaustive than usual. if you spot something i've missed, please feel free to jump in.

first, a word about language. there's been some confusion on the term "refugee" versus "migrant". migrants are people who move to another place with the hopes of earning more, and having a better quality of life. there are lots of issues surrounding migrants, but we aren't discussing those here. displaced persons are people who have been forced from their homes because of war, persecution, natural disaster or other compelling force. among displaced persons, refugees are a specific group who attempt to seek asylum in other countries. this is important, because it's easy to forget that when we see people clamouring to get into turkey and then into europe, we're only seeing part of the problem. there are many, many more who are in the same situation, but who choose not to leave, so they simply remain displaced within their own country.

many of us have become suspicious of the media and its alarmist tendencies. of course, there is a clear problem when thousands of people are willing to leave their lives behind and walk thousands of kilometres in the hopes of being able to start all over again in europe. but here's a little perspective:

this is the worst crisis of the sort in modern history. there are more refugees and displaced persons in the world now than there were after the second world war. think about that: more people have been forced from their homes now than at a time when practically the entire world was fighting.

in 2003, there were approximately 15 million refugees and displaced persons in the world. at the end of 2014, there were 38 million. the sharpest increase during that time was from 2013-14, where the number of displaced persons rose 15%. 11 million people were forced to flee their homes in 2014 alone. there has been speculation that 2015 is well on course to exceed 2014 in the total number of displaced persons created. so the problem is huge, from that perspective, and it's getting worse. [side note :: it's pretty much a given that the numbers are worse than this, because not all countries participate in u.n. surveys on the subject, which is pretty much the only source of information. the number of participants goes up every year, but it's far from everyone.]

but it's interesting to see the german interior minister characterise the current wave of refugees as "challenging but not overwhelming". that's some optimism, mein herr. but perhaps not entirely unfounded. most of the refugees, after all, are coming from syria, where there was an established middle class before the country was torn apart by civil war. these aren't people with no skills or education. given a chance to settle in germany, many of them will become productive, tax-paying citizens. that's not to say that germany has ulterior motives for offering refuge, but i suspect they're capable of seeing the long game. germany, like almost every country in western europe, has an aging population. if they are to be able to maintain their standard of living as more and more germans exit the work force and fewer arrive to take their places, there will be a shortfall. a very effective way of making up that shortfall is by allowing people to immigrate. the challenge is to deal with the short term, because it's difficult to deal with so many prospective immigrants at one time.

bottom line: it's a really big problem, but that doesn't mean it's so big that it can't be solved.

talk on the media refers almost exclusively to "syrian refugees" in the current crisis and while that's not wrong, it's a little misleading. syria is the country with the largest number of refugees by a large margin. there are 7.6 million displaced persons in syria [out of a total population of 18 million], of which between 1 and 1.5 million have fled the country to seek refuge elsewhere. so, yes, the current crisis is about syria. but that's only part of it.

the country with the third most displaced persons in the world is iraq, and the chief reasons that they're only third are that so many people have already left and islamic state is in between many people who might want to leave and the places that they'd go. of those who left before, many of them went to syria. in 2007, when the syrian government finally closed the doors to refugees, there were 1.2 million iraqis living in syria, the majority of whom were refugees.

to put that in perspective, that would be like the united states accepting 30 million refugees. as you might expect, such a sharp increase in population put massive strain on syria's infrastructure, to the point where there were water shortages and power outages.

since 2012, a lot of iraqis have been politely asked to leave syria on pain of death and while many traveled back to iraq, many chose to flee to other countries and of those who did return to iraq, many have been forced out again. so the current wave of refugees are not entirely those displaced by the syrian civil war. many were displaced originally by the iraq wars and what has happened in syria is just the latest in a long line of really terrible things to happen to them.

[side note :: if syria is first and iraq third on the list of countries who have the greatest number of displaced persons, who's in second? you can think about it for a while, but chances are that unless you already know or resort to checking google, you're not going to figure it out: it's colombia. this is one of the world's "invisible" crises, because the vast majority of those displaced in colombia have remained there. since there are not boatloads of desperate people washing ashore in florida, or on the islands of the caribbean, the rest of the world remains unaware of the dire circumstances in which many colombians find themselves. there are over 6 million people who have been driven from their homes, thanks to an ongoing war between the government and the rebel group known as farc.]

the second iraq war also destabilized the region and, into the power vacuum left in the wake saddam hussein rushed the militant religious minority we know as isis. when syria's bashir al-assad found himself the target of arab spring protests and the civil war flared up, isis fighters poured right over the border to profit from the chaos there as well. a dozen years of continuous war in a multiethnic region circumscribed by ill-conceived national borders drawn by people who never lived in the region... well, you see where this is going.

it's ironic that it's germany who have stepped up to say that they will stay rules on refugees [european union rules, no less] in order to accommodate the current crisis. after all, germany and france were the two highest profile countries to dig in their heels and say "no" to the united states' plan to invade iraq on the [wrong] assumption that they had produced weapons of mass destruction. if anyone should be throwing their rule book aside, it should be the united states and/ or the united kingdom, who continue to behave as if refugees are some kind of dangerous fungus. both are quick to point out that other wealthy countries like saudi arabia have done even less to help, as if that somehow excuses their own inaction. [it's true, countries in the arab world have been unforgivably parsimonious when it comes to offering shelter. kuwait ponied up $500 million usd for the cause, but what's clearly needed is a country willing to take in and take care of refugees. that said, it wasn't the arab countries that started a war and destabilized the region, but more importantly, it is not an acceptable excuse for bad behaviour that someone else is behaving worse. america and britain should know better.]

first and foremost, we need to get the current tidal wave of refugees taken care of. angela merkel, who hasn't had the kindest things to say about immigrants in the past, gets this. there's no reason why others should dither about it. if syria can, even temporarily, take in over a million refugees, there's absolutely no reason why a combination of wealthy countries can't do the same. the challenge is one of speed and logistics, not financial capability.

but beyond that, there needs to be a serious reckoning about the responsibility of those who start wars that lead to this sort of humanitarian crisis and, before these sorts of rash actions are taken again [and they will be], we need to ask what the plan is not just for the end of the war, but afterward, when millions of people will once again be left displaced and homeless and we will again see photos of tiny bodies caught in the aftermath.

p.s. :: if you'd like to learn more about displaced populations around the world, i'd highly recommend downloading this report [link to pdf document]. 


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