It constitutes the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War affecting huge numbers of people and demanding all that is best in us. Yet instead of compassion, understanding and unity, all too often intolerance, ignorance and suspicion characterize the response to the needs of refugees and migrants.
There are now unprecedented numbers of displaced people in our world, with children making up a disproportionate percentage of the total. Figures from UNHCR are detailed and shocking and demand our attention: At 65.3 million, “the global population of forcibly displaced people today is larger than the entire population of the UK.” Of this total, almost 25 million are refugees (half are children, many of them unaccompanied) – 3.2 million of whom are in developed countries awaiting asylum decisions. The rest, 41 million, are displaced within their own countries, Syria, Columbia, Yemen and Iraq making up the lion’s share.
The movement of large groups of people are most commonly the result of wars of one kind or another. This is reflected in the fact that over half the world’s refugees come from just three countries: Syria (4.9 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million) and Somalia (1.1 million). People are also fleeing conflicts in Yemen, Libya, Nigeria and Sudan, and the UN recognises a further five armed conflicts in Africa alone – this does not include Ethiopia, where there is civil unrest, or Eritrea. Add to this list nations ruled by repressive regimes, other countries where economic opportunities are scarce and the magnitude of the migrant crisis begins to surface. It’s worth noting that the overwhelming majority of refugees (people fleeing violence), 90%, are not crowding the cities of industrialised nations, as some duplicitous politicians infer, they are in refugee camps in poor countries close to their own, living uncomfortable lives of uncertainty and misery.
Most people don’t leave their homeland because they want too. They move because either their town or city is a war zone; they are being persecuted and are in danger; or they cannot find work to support themselves. Given the same circumstances wouldn’t we do the same? And yet in countries throughout the world migrants have become the scapegoat for all manner of social-economic ills. Often publicly vilified and treated like criminals by heavy-handed officials and security personnel, herded into holding camps, processing units and detention centres – which in many cases are worse than prison. ‘Migrant’ in some bigoted quarters has become a dirty word, synonymous with criminality and extremism. Described as a potential threat to ‘national security’ or as ‘Islamic terrorists’ by those on the very fringes of sanity – flag-waving fanatics who call themselves politicians, but employ the rhetoric of intolerance and fear to ignite tribal instincts that should have been jettisoned in favour of mutual understanding, tolerance and universal brotherhood decades ago. Migrants are not criminals, they are human beings trying to survive in a hostile, unjust world: A world in which violent conflicts – that lead to the mass movement of people – are engineered by the powerful to sustain an insatiable arms industry (worth $1.7 trillion or 3% of global GDP) and maintain geo-political control. A world based on wrong conclusions, where the commercialisation of all areas of life has lead to the commodification of everything, including persons – including children. In this world of money and fear the most vulnerable are traded and sold; vulnerability grows out of poverty, and allows for exploitation: there are few human beings more vulnerable and defenceless than migrants, particularly migrant children.
For most people fleeing conflict or economic hardship in the Middle East and Africa (North and Sub-Saharan) the primary destination is Europe. In 2016, 363,348 people arrived at one or another Mediterranean port , roughly a third being children, 90% of whom were unaccompanied. Most people cross the sea to Italy or Greece, departing from Libya, of whom 5,078 are estimated to have drowned making the 300-mile crossing during 2016 alone. Since the ill-judged U.S.-led assault on Libya in 2011, the country has become a chaotic dysfunctional state racked with terrorism, political instability and crime. In this lawless land Human Rights Watch (HRW) records that hundreds of thousands of innocent migrants (including children), experience torture, sexual assault and forced labour at the hands of “prison guards, members of the Coast Guard forces and smugglers.” Recent investigations by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) found that migrants in Libya are being openly bought and sold as slaves by Libyans; young men from poor families, mainly from Nigeria, Ghana, Gambia and Senegal, are targeted. They pay traffickers hundreds of US$ to get them to Libya, and once they arrive, IOM reports, they are handed over to smugglers for sale. In other cases migrant boys/men are kidnapped, held for ransom and then auctioned off to the highest bidder. Women and girls are “bought by private [Libyan] individuals and brought to homes where they were [are] forced to be sex slaves.” It’s thought that up to 800,000 migrants are currently congregated in Libya.
When those who survive the horrors of Libya make it to Europe, the nightmare for some is far from over. Save the Children reports that thousands of migrants are trafficked in Europe every year; the majority are women/girls, mainly from Nigeria and Romania, who are forced into prostitution, “made to rent sidewalk space to sell sex, ”amid voodoo rituals and violent threats against their families back home. Some are as young as 13. Boys are also victims: “social networking sites like Facebook” are used “to lure boys with the promise of a better life.” The reality is slave labour in Rome or Milan. As the number of unaccompanied children arriving on Europe’s shores doubles year on year, the risks of exploitation and human suffering increase. Europol believes as many as 10,000 “unaccompanied child refugees have gone missing after arriving in Europe.”
Victims of circumstance
The numbers are huge and the demands on countries to meet the needs of millions of displaced people are intense and complex. But as Pope Francis, who is increasingly the voice of reason and common sense, rightly stated, “we must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation…in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.”
When migrants arrive at their destination, knowing nobody, not speaking the language and with no understanding of the culture, they are faced with the mammoth task of re-building their lives. All depends on the support and welcome offered. In the U.S., despite Trump’s antagonistic rhetoric, the attitude amongst most Americans is largely positive. According to a Pew research survey, 63% of U.S. adults think immigrants strengthen the country, with only 27% believing migrants take jobs, housing and health care. In Europe however, the picture was less encouraging; in eight out of 10 European nations surveyed 50% or more of adults questioned said they thought refugees increased the likelihood of terrorism, and in none of the 10 countries did a majority believe diversity was positive.
It is essential, and morally just, that all displaced people should be treated kindly, shown understanding and trust. Destination countries should be welcoming, Government policies supportive and inclusive, refugees integrated – for as Pope Francis said, “a refugee must not only be welcomed, but also integrated…and if a country is only able to integrate 20, let’s say, then it should only accept that many. If another is able to do more, let them do more.”
Displaced people (refugees or economic migrants) sitting in a refugee camp or sheltering in an abandoned building, waiting to hear the result of an asylum application or in transit somewhere in the world, are victims of circumstance. They are not the ones orchestrating or carrying out the violent conflicts around the world, nor are they responsible for the economic conditions in their native countries. They are victims of a divided world, fragmented by religion, ethnicity, ideology and economics; and with the intensification of these causes the effects increase – displacement of people is one such effect.
The solutions to this major crisis, and indeed many of our problems, would naturally flow from the recognition of the fact that we are brothers and sisters of one humanity. In such an understanding, hostile divisions based on nationalism and ethnicity begin to fade, whilst the diversity of differing views and cultural traditions enriches and adds to the tapestry of society. This single shift in thinking – simple yet enormous – would facilitate changes in all areas of society; sharing, co-operation and tolerance of others would begin to shape the socio-economic systems, totally changing their nature, allowing social justice to develop, trust to grow and peace to gently settle upon our troubled world.