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The Forgotten Refugees: A Humanitarian Leadership Challenge

February 21, 2016

Baby.jpgSixty million people – almost twice Canada’s population (36 million).

Sixty million people – close to France’s population (66 million), Great Britain’s (64 million) and more than South Korea’s (50 million).

What’s with the sixty million number? It’s the estimated number of people around the world who are defined by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) as being “displaced.” Note that the UNHCR has under its care some 30 million refugees, only half the world’s total. This link contains a questionnaire to test your knowledge on refugees. It helps to not just inform but to debunk some of the myths surrounding the world’s refugee crisis. As Article 1 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states:

“A refugee is a person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country, or who not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable, or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

The world watches grim-faced as the political spectacle continues to unfold in the United States. Republican presidential candidate wannabees beat one another up, engaging in one-upmanship to see who can most viscerally attack visible minorities and those of the Islam faith. In your correspondent’s home country of Canada, the reaction to the plight of Syrian refugees has been much different, though not without its own racial-tinged brand in some quarters. But on the whole, Canadians have embraced accepting 25,000 Syrians who have been arriving in Canada since early fall 2015 (to date, 21,000 have entered the country). One sad commentary is that the United States, 10 times Canada’s population, is talking about admitting 10,000 Syrians, yet experiencing acute anxiety.

Canada’s picture, however, could have been much different had former Prime Minister Stephen Harper won re-election on October 19, 2015. Justin Trudeau, as the country’s new prime minister, has rejected much of Harper’s xenophobic policies and practices, embracing instead the concept of a pluralistic society and the benefits it bestows upon a nation. Take a moment to read this CBC piece on the experience of Sri Lankan refugees who landed on Canada’s west coast in 2009.

Yet there’s also something disturbing about not just Canada’s new government but also Canadians when it comes to the serious issue of refugees. Indeed, the Syrian crisis deserves focused attention. However, it’s only a tiny component of a much bigger problem encompassing dozens of countries and stretching back years. And the problem is growing steadily.

Let’s step back for a moment and consider the world’s refugee–displaced persons–crisis.


Close your eyes for a moment and think where the biggest concentration of refugees is located.

What did you decide?

The world’s largest refugee camp is in Dadaab (pictured), a semi-arid town located in the northeast corner of Kenya near the Somalian border. The number of refugees living in this camp is staggering, reflecting a good size North American city – 330,000 men, women and children (the latter two groups make up 80%). A correction: there are actually five camps within this huge encampment. While the refugees are allowed to move around freely, new arrivals are kept in a guarded compound until they are registered, finger-printed and issued ration cards (which takes almost two weeks to process).

Three of the camps date back to 1992, when droughts and civil wars forced people to seek refuge. Managed by the UNHCR, the encampment is operated by several not-for-profit organizations, including CARE, the German Technical Co-operation, the Red Cross, and the World Food Programme (Médecins sans Frontières assisted until 2003). The majority of inhabitants are from Somalia’s war-torn south.

“Home” consists of plastic sheeting formed into domes, under which the average family size is four, and usually a mother with young children (only 4% of the complex’s population is over age 60). The diseases found range from measles outbreaks to hepatitis to dysentery to cholera. Violence is common. Despite the desperate conditions, there are some 50 schools in the complex, market stalls sell a variety of food such as goat meat, and people hawk cell phones.

The Dadabb refugee complex is a testament to the human spirit and perseverance.

Tongolese Refugees Ghana

The scope of the world’s refugee problem almost defies comprehension. It would take pages to list and just briefly explain the situation facing dozens of countries. However, here are some examples. (Photo: Togolese refugees in Ghana.)

In 2014, Ethiopia replaced Somalia as the African country with the most refugees. Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese have fled their country’s violence to seek refuge, helping boost Ethiopia’s refugee count to over 630,000. Eritreans fleeing their country’s onerous government regime have added further to Ethiopia’s problem. All told, East Africa’s refugee infrastructure is maxed out (including camps in Uganda and Sudan).

African refugees, and those in numerous other countries on other continents, have a legitimate concern about being left behind as a result of the Western world’s pre-occupation with the Syrian refugees. In the fall of 2015, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told the EU parliament that the union’s 28 countries were obligated to take in the 160,000 refugees stuck in Greece, Italy and Hungary. He further stated that all of them would be treated equally. As Juncker put it: “Europe has made the mistake in the past of distinguishing between Jews, Christians, Muslims.” There is no religion, no belief, no philosophy when it comes to refugees.”

This is all well and good, except that many Africans aren’t convinced of Juncker’s statement, especially when a portion of them are perceived as economic refugees. It raises the question to what degree will Article 1 of the 1951 Convention (see above) be adhered to.

As painful as it was to see three year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian, lying dead on a beach in Turkey (his brother and mother also drowned), which galvanized attention around the world (relatives have recently been admitted to Canada), there were no photos taken of the babies who washed up on beaches in Zuwara, Lybia, on August 28, 2015. If there had been photos taken and displayed in the media, would that have changed anything for African refugees? Would the world have sat up and noticed and taken action?

The ability and the capacity of Western countries to absorb those seeking refuge has limits. One can argue that while there must remain effective mechanisms, bolstered by action-oriented national leadership, to take in those seeking refuge on a wide range of reasons, the longer-term solution is for democratic leaders to help change the conditions under which people are suffering.
That’s the bigger picture of making our planet a more humane place in which to raise a family and to secure a safer, more productive and healthier life.

We live in the age of the refugee, the age of the exile.
– Ariel Dorfman (Argentine-Chilean playwright, academic and human rights activist)


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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2016 8:25 pm

    More western nations need to help refugees. It is heartbreaking to see what these people endure. They deserve compassion and opportunities to lead a normal life. To turn a blind eye is incredibly selfish, even if it is politically popular.

    • February 22, 2016 12:24 am

      Well, the wealthy European countries have been swamped by just Syrians. Germany, alone, has admitted something like one million. Yet the United States, with a population of some 320 million, is making a fuss at allowing in just 10,000 Syrians. Considering that Canada is 11% the population of the US, let’s round to 250,000, being the number of Syrians that America should be taking in. But my point in my post was the bigger picture of the planet’s growing refugee crisis.

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