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The tragedy of being a refugee on earth

June 20, 2023 at 4:45 pm

UNHCR staff Katra Abdullahi (L) talks with newly arrived Somali refugees at the profiling and resigtration centre in the Dadaab refugee camp, one of Africa’s largest refugee camps in Kenya, on March 23, 2023 [BOBB MURIITHI/AFP via Getty Images]

Today, 20 June, 2023, is “World Refugee Day”. In 2001, on the 50th anniversary of the United Nation’s (UN) adoption of the “Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees” in 1951, it was celebrated by the UN to raise awareness of the growing refugee crisis in the world. So, what has been the situation of refugees in the world, in the 22 years that have passed? What challenges await the asylum seekers and refugees we encounter daily in every corner of the world? The refugee phenomenon, which has become a global crisis, can be better understood by analyzing the data to grasp the gravity of the situation.

Growing numbers of refugees in the world

According to data released last week by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 35.3 million refugees, 5.4 million asylum seekers, 62.5 million forcibly displaced people and 5.2 million people in need of international protection for various reasons. Thus, for the first time since 2022, the number of forcibly displaced people, worldwide, has exceeded the 100 million mark and reached 108.4 million. Over half of the refugees are from Syria, Ukraine and Afghanistan. In addition, there are refugees from Myanmar, South Sudan and Venezuela. To these countries, it is necessary to add the United States (US), Indonesia, Maldives, India, Italy, Tunisia, Australia and others trying to cope with climate and disaster refugees, which will become more and more topical. Nearly all countries in the world, including high-income countries, have a population of internally or forcibly displaced people. In 2001, there were around 40 million forcibly displaced people; by 2023, this number had reached 108.4 million. In this respect, the phenomenon of refugees is now a global crisis that requires all countries to act together.

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The first problem faced by people forcibly displaced by war, conflict, disaster, famine, health and so on is the access to security, shelter and health services inherently necessary for life sustainability. The longer an asylum-seeker or a refugee stays in the country of asylum – 67 per cent of refugees in the world have been refugees for more than five years – the more new challenges on the issues, such as education, integration, work life and return may rise. Nevertheless, following the global economic crisis of 2008, racism and dehumanisation, an ancient problem of human history, have resurfaced, potentially overshadowing the challenges faced by refugees and posing an ever-increasing threat to their lives. The problem of dehumanisation has been deepened for Muslim refugees, especially after 9/11, when the “Western” world called for a new “crusade” against Muslim countries.

Problems faced by refugees

While being a refugee is a very challenging humanitarian situation, being a disabled person, a woman, a child, or an older adult exacerbates this challenge. 40 per cent (43.3 million) of the 108.4 million refugees are children under 18. Between 2018 and 2022, 385,000 children were born as refugees annually, totalling 1.9 million. Children needing protection face many problems, such as health, education and safety. More than 18 thousand children went missing in Europe alone in 2018-2020. Women are particularly exposed to harassment, rape and forced labour.

People fleeing war, famine and disasters often have health problems. Travelling on foot, and in adverse weather conditions, to reach the destination country strains human health. At the same time, many countries have unhygienic camp environments and inadequate medical staff, due to a lack of resources, incentives to return, and dehumanisation policies. Overcrowded refugee camps, such as those in Greece, France and Bangladesh, provide a breeding ground for epidemics.

The New York Declaration adopted by the UN in 2016 prioritised the education of refugee children. Despite this, 48 per cent of refugee children cannot attend any school. As the age of children increases, schooling rates decrease. Considering that education is both a human right and a priority for adaptation to the host society, it is clear that states should urgently address this issue.

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Reducing the number of refugees worldwide is essential for the humanitarian living conditions of the forcibly displaced. However, while the number of refugees worldwide has increased rapidly in the last 20 years, there is a different situation in the number of returns. In 2022, 339,300 people from 38 countries voluntarily returned to their country of origin. In the same year, the number of resettlements to third countries was 114,300. These figures fall far short of the 108.4 million forcibly displaced persons.

The rising trend of recent years: Dehumanisation of refugees

At the beginning of the 20th century, the ideas of racism that emerged in Europe with the pathological transformation of group loyalties into nationhood, led to the dehumanisation of ethnic and religious minorities and nations to be identified as the “other” in a way unprecedented in human history. The far-right dominant groups and parties in countries hosting large refugee populations have adopted the dehumanisation of minorities as a method of suspending universal human rights.​​​​​​​

Often refugees are stigmatised by the far-right groups and political parties in the country of asylum as “cowards fleeing war” and “lazy drones who refuse to work”. They dehumanise refugees by denying them the human qualities, such as hard work, kindness, humanitarian sensitivity, courage, civility and so on, that they attribute to their citizens. For example, as seen in Germany, the houses of refugees and migrants can be burned down, while people live in them. In France, Greece and Bangladesh, one can see refugee camps burned down. Even boats carrying refugees trying to cross the Aegean and the Mediterranean Sea to seek asylum in Europe can be pushed back, causing them to sink.

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In this context, asylum, which is a universal human right, is not deemed “worthy” for asylum seekers from non-European countries, as the United Kingdom (UK) is trying to implement, by receiving asylum requests in Rwanda, or as the establishment and financing of camps by the EU similar to the concentration camps for asylum seekers in Libya. These are examples of modern dehumanisation. This situation has become a problem, not only for Western societies but also for countries worldwide that host large numbers of refugees. Refugees, due to manipulated videos, memes and fake news circulating on social media, find themselves dehumanised and subjected to constant verbal and physical violence, harassment, and discrimination perpetrated by dominant groups across the globe.

The EU’s financial and military efforts to push back asylum seekers from the Mediterranean, and its generosity towards “white, Christian, civilised European” asylum seekers from Ukraine reveal the extent of discrimination in the Western world. When a refugee is stateless, Muslim and from the Middle East or Asia, he/she is subject to inter-sectional discrimination. On World Refugee Day, we should be aware that refugees confront fundamental problems such as livelihood, health, education, repatriation, increasing discrimination and dehumanisation.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.