No Refuge: Unless Solutions are Found, the Global Refugee Problem Will Only Get Worse


Last week, according to stranded migrants picked up by a cargo ship and brought to safety in Greece, more than 450 Africans, mostly Somalis, but also Ethiopians, Egyptians and Sudanese, drowned while making a night time journey across the Mediterranean to Europe. As two survivors, Muaz Mahmoud Aymo, 25, and Molid Isman, 28, told reporters shortly after their rescue, two boats, one from Egypt and one from Libya, met on the high seas to transfer their human cargo.

The smaller of the two vessels, coming from Egypt, made the 200 people it was carrying board the larger Libyan one, which was already transporting as many as 300 more. Likely due to the weight added by the new arrivals, the larger boat soon began to sink. In the mad scramble that must have followed, a few were able to make their way back to the smaller ship.

Unfortunately, their attempts to try and help those succumbing to the water were stopped by an armed smuggler who started the boat’s engine, spiriting the 41 survivors away from the carnage. Muaz Mahmoud Aymo, who is from Ethiopia, told reporters that his wife and two month old baby were lost to the sea that night.

Soon after leaving the scene, the Egyptian ship’s engine broke down. A third boat then appeared and the smuggler, promising to come back with water and food, left them stranded and at the mercy of the water and the wind. He didn’t return.

Not a Western Problem, A Global One

To put this ordeal into perspective, at least 3000 people died crossing the Mediterranean and its embayment, the Aegean Sea between Greece and Turkey, in 2014 alone and, while these waters might currently have the highest number of migrants crossing them, this kind of risky undertaking “is a global phenomenon, and it happens in the Gulf of Aden, the Bay of Bengal, and over in the Caribbean Sea too in significant numbers.”

While smugglers like the ones who charged Mahmoud Aymo and Isman thousands of dollars for the trip are merchants of misery and must bear the brunt of the responsibility for the tragedy, until it begins to effect their countries there is very little interest in the Western press for migrants, whatever their reasons for fleeing their homes.

Lebanon was overun by Syrian refugees long before they started showing up on European shores. Over one million were in the tiny country of four and a half million by 2015, straining the resources of a nation already living with the consequences of an earlier civil war and repeated military incursions on the part of its southern neighbor, Israel. Very few if any western commentators worried about how this might effect the country’s unique culture. As usual, it isn’t a crisis until it reaches the west.

Few Solutions in Sight

Much more in the news, at least in Europe, was a $3 billion band-aid solution proposed by the EU and Turkey to solve the crisis caused by a similar number of Syrians arriving in Europe. Although the Turkish government has promised to protect those being returned from Greece, Reuters reported that, under the country’s laws, Turkey “applies the Geneva Convention on refugees only to Europeans, offers limited protection to Syrians and no legal guarantees for other nationalities”. These will likely include Iraqis, Afghans and other nationalities among those who have made the desperate trip to Europe.

The agreement also does nothing to address those refugees from sub-Saharan Africa crossing from Libya, which, thanks to a NATO and Gulf state intervention, is now a failing state. Although the Libyan Coast Guard is still operating, it is vastly underfunded and hasn’t been able to stop this flow of desperate people.

The latest plan to deal with these migrants is a naval blockade that is probably illegal under international law. A proposed NATO mission, it will also involve North Americans and has been wholeheartedly endorsed by US President Obama, who Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told reporters “was willing to commit NATO assets” to the action. It will be called Operation Sophia, presumably after the Greek word for wisdom, even though there is very little of that quality about it or anything to do with Libya at all in terms of NATO’s involvement there over the last few years.

Western leaders need to be reminded that most refugees eventually want to return to their home countries. In terms of natural disasters, this is almost always the case. However, the length of modern wars and their attendant instability has made repatriating conflict refugees difficult, as explained by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) “In 2014, just 126,000 refugees were able to go home – the lowest number of returns recorded since 1983 and a significant drop from the previous year when 415,000 went home.”

There is a real problem in terms of finding long term solutions to the crisis of displaced people whether they are from Central America, Africa or the Greater Middle East. To be fair, the UNHCR has for years had to deal with so many displaced people globally that the organization has been forced to take a reactive rather than proactive approach to its mandate. In most places, including Calais in France, migrants are crowded into tent cities, forbidden to work and viewed with suspicion by the local population.

If humane repatriation of refugees is to be one of the global communities’ main goals as put forward by the UNHCR (along with organization’s other two, less popular, pillars: resettlement in a third country and integration into the host country) then more effort will have to be put into de-escalating the world’s conflicts and creating opportunities for these people at home. This will also mean dealing with governments we may find unsavory, like the Assad regime in Syria that, for all its faults, has a better track record than many of our allies in the region in terms of protecting minorities.

It is human nature, I think, to react to crises in the moment rather than look for long term solutions but there is no doubt that the current system of housing people in tent cities, detention centers or demanding that they return home is both cruel and unsustainable. Sadly, with climate change and increasing conflict we can expect that these problems will only get worse.

While doing the research for this article I was disappointed to find that there are very few ideas for dealing with this growing problem that don’t involve building walls or the threat of force. For three radical proposals, unlikely as they may seem, click here.


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