Refugees – people escaping from war, persecution or natural disaster – are not a new issue in the world. The mythical beginnings of Rome state that it was built refugees from Troy. In fact, the movement of people around the world was likely fueled by refugees – as groups of people fled overland seeking safety and security for their people. Yet today, refugees are the dark side of mobility, the people who do not move because they wish to, but move because they must.
The concept and international law associated with refugees came about during and after World War 2, with Europeans, displaced by the war and the events immediately following. My own Mother and Grandparents left Hungary in the 1950s – among 200,000 to do so – they escaped from communist rule to make a new life in Australia.
Yet while refugees are by no means a new phenomena, the world has changed greatly in recent years and their place in it has changed greatly too. With the proliferation of the Nation State, especially the concept of solid borders for each country, the position of refugees has become more complex. No longer can people just move to a new place – now international law, and border security is involved. While on the one hand, there is increased help for refugees from some international agencies, many countries would prefer to not have to deal with the refugee problem at all. Currently, the vast majority of refugees either move to countries bordering their own, or are IDPs – Internally Displaced Peoples – people who escape from one part of their country to another. IDPs are problematic for international aid agencies, as they have limited ability to help them unless the Government of the country allows it.
The number of refugees in the world today is hard to estimate. There are currently 10.5 million refugees “of concern” to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants –USCRI- estimates are higher at 13.6 million, as well as 26 million IDPs. Some of the worst refugee crisis’ currently include Iraq, where millions of people have been displaced due to the ongoing war and civil strife. Refugees international, an independent refugee advocacy group, has “observed extreme vulnerabilities” with the 1.5 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, Jordan and other neighboring countries, and the 2.7 million IDPs. The ongoing security concerns of the country, means that any kind of repatriation is impossible currently, yet many of these refugees situations are getting increasingly desperate. Even if the fighting were to stop, the war has changed the social make up of the country, with the creation of ethnically cleansed neighborhoods, so many would not be able to return to their homes.
In Pakistan, around 2 million people have fled from the fighting in the Swat valley, where conflict between Pakistani and Taliban forces has reached a critical point. The major problem that arises with the sudden influx of a large amount of refugees is logistical – where to put them. The camps that are built are built quickly out of necessity, themselves and create problems. According to Justitia et Pax, an NGO working in the area:
“The situation in these refugee camps is very serious, especially for women. There are no arrangements for privacy for women and there is no police or other forms of protection. So for women it is actually a very dangerous situation to be in”.
With 15% of refugees in Pakistan living in official refugee camps, the rest staying with families, it is extremely difficult to deliver aid, especially health.
What happens to these refugees? The lucky ones gain asylum in rich Western countries, but this is akin to a lottery – the amount that actually get to these countries legally is minute. Many more live in difficult, dangerous situations, like the internally displaced Pakistanis and Iraqis. According to the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, over half of the worlds refugees – 8.5 million in fact – are either trapped in refugee camps or otherwise denied their human rights under the 1951 U.N. Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. According to the USCRI, South Africa, Thailand and Gaza are noted as the three worst places for refugees to be living in the world. In Thailand, the Thai Navy towed unseaworthy boats with nearly 1,000 Rohingyas (a muslim ethnic group, escaping from Myanmar) and scant food and water aboard into the open sea to prevent them coming from ashore. In South Africa, mobs of the country’s poorest citizens rampaged through slums and shanty-towns attacking suspected foreigners and, in some cases, even setting them on fire.
Currently, there are alarming refugee situations all over the world. From Sudan to Sri Lanka conflict has pushed millions out of their homes into dangerous and difficult situations. In this, we see the dark side of mobility, but also the importance of such organizations as AIESEC, as it aims to educate young people in being globally minded leaders – the very people who will be able to work in the future towards making this world a better place. The kind of place where people move because they want to, not because they are forced.