Edges of Empires
This is not the crisis you are looking for
The global refugee crisis entered the spotlight in 2015, when over one million refugees crossed the Aegean Sea into Greece. This crisis, however, is not new. These one million people constitute a small fraction of the growing and largely unseen population of 65.6 million forcibly displaced people globally who have been driven from their homes.
65.6 million people is roughly equal to the population of France, which in turn is, according to the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, roughly equal to the size of about 10 Delawares. This nation-sized movement of people follows a predictable pattern: it turns out people flee crises. The vast majority, 84%, are in developing countries where they lack opportunities to rebuild their lives. Many are held at the borders of wealthy nations who increasingly restrict movement between said borders.
The displaced are not the “poorest of the poor” of their countries. When refugees are given assistance to integrate and opportunities to work, their dependency on aid is eliminated, and they consistently become positive contributors to the economies of their host countries.
These are, in fact, the immigrants you are looking for
Refugees are most often portrayed as a teeming, homogeneous mass: huddling together, sitting in dirt, sleeping in tents, and waiting for handouts. These images conjure associations with homeless people of developed nations — an easier image to process, and ignore, on your daily commute. Such images strip people of their identities and capabilities, which span varying professions and levels of education.
According to the Tent Foundation’s report, Refugees Work, “A third of recent refugees in Sweden are college or university graduates and two-thirds of those have skills that match graduate job vacancies […] Investing one Euro in welcoming refugees can yield nearly two Euros in economic benefits within five years.” Prior to war in 2010, Syria had an unemployment rate of 8.4%, lower than the recent average for Europe, 9.6%. Syria also had tertiary education levels of 34% for men and 33% for women, almost equal to recent numbers for Netherlands and France, 34% and 32% respectively.
Success of integration, irrespective of age, is most affected by native language fluency and bridging the skills that refugees already have for the local markets. These skills shorten the time needed for refugees to become positive contributors to their host countries’ economies.
Attitudes to welcoming refugees vary, creating cultural thresholds for the numbers of refugees that are accepted before governments respond with attempts to reduce their arrival. This means that host nations and refugees both fail to consistently receive the benefits of integration.
We’ve not gone on holiday by mistake
The refugee crisis that arrives on developed nations’ borders is dwarfed by the numbers of refugees in developing nations.
To recap: people flee violent conflicts, environmental disasters, Harvey, Harvey, and failing states. Refugees are those who, again, seek refuge. In 2016, there were 65.6 million people who had fled their homes, roughly the population of the artist soon to be formerly known as the UK. More than 40 million of those people were still in their home countries, either living in urban areas or informal settlements akin to refugee camps. From the 7th to the 20th of September 2017 — a span of just two weeks — more than 2.3 million people became displaced due to conflicts and environmental disasters. Those numbers include more than 200,000 due to hurricanes in the Atlantic. The internally displaced are mostly unacknowledged outside their home countries, despite their numbers being vastly larger than international refugees.
Of those total displaced, 22.5 million became refugees by crossing borders into new countries, comprising about one third of the total displaced. Between the 25th of August 2017 and 6th of October 2017 — a span of just 6 weeks — more than half a million fled ethnic violence in Myanmar to become refugees in Bangladesh, where one of the world’s largest refugee camps is being built for them. China, member of the UN Permanent Security Council (which includes the United States, the Russia, La France, and the artist formerly known as the UK) has been quietly and preemptively working on a network of refugee camps for North Korea.
When refugees request sanctuary in a host country, they take on the legal status of asylum-seekers. Globally, there were 2.8 million asylum-seekers in 2016. It is estimated that over 60% of refugees live in urban areas. The rest live in camps.
When people feel unsafe, they keep moving. The most desperate take enormous risks, pushing through closed borders and resorting to paying human smugglers to cross many nations. Human smugglers are estimated to have generated $5–6 billion in profit in 2015.
This search for safety is itself unsafe, and has resulted in at least 17,992 deaths since 2015. The causes vary by region but globally the main causes of death in 2017 were drowning, starvation, and a lack of access to medicine. Unknown numbers are simply missing, including more than 10,000 children reported missing after arriving in Europe. The rest are feared to most probably being lost to human trafficking.
The envelope that couldn’t be pushed
The majority of refugees flee fragile states and cross into neighbouring countries, which are themselves developing nations. This results in 84% of refugees stopping in developing nations. Only 16% make it to developed nations.
Lebanon and the US provide an acute example of this contrast. Estimates for 2017 suggest that refugees account for about 25% of Lebanon’s total population. In contrast, the United States hosts less than one-tenth of 1% of its population.
Developing nations, despite their difficult domestic circumstances, are obligated to provide human rights to refugees, as set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention. Such rights include free access to courts, elementary education for children, the possibility of assimilation and naturalization, and many more. They are not, however, guaranteed access to employment, which could eliminate their dependency on aid, if combined with much needed economic development support for those countries.
This imbalance between developed and developing nations is subject to increasing international criticism, and even legal action from EU courts. However, wealthy nations increasingly strive to choke the flow of refugees from reaching them. In 2016, the EU agreed to give Turkey €3bn to accept the return of refugees. The EU has also agreed to provide funds to Libya to stop the flow of refugees to Italy. While this prevents refugees from reaching the EU, it can keep refugees in catastrophic conditions such as those in Libya, where a civil war has been ongoing since 2014.
Wealthy nations pay to export their domestic asylum problems, and thence create humanitarian crises in poor nations; often, funds are sent to governments and groups that have abysmal human rights records. Instead, wealthy nations could increase the economic benefits they already receive from refugees by accepting a greater share of them. Additionally, the aid that wealthy nations provide to developing nations desperately needs restructuring. If that aid successfully increases the GDP of poor nations, they could actually become safe havens for refugees, reducing their need to continue their flight.
My-my-my beautiful neighbourhood
About 40% of refugees live in camps with extreme variations in living conditions. Some are informal camps, developed in haste using materials at hand. A half million refugees currently live in such camps in Myanmar. Others are soft camps, where people live in tents. Camps funded by international aid organizations are often hard camps, with people living in simple hard-walled structures and basic infrastructure made of ISO boxes.
Whatever the conditions, these camps are designed to be temporary. The reality, however, is that they often last for years or decades, with some growing as large as cities. The Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya was established 26 years ago in 1991, coinciding with My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless or Nirvana’s Nevermind. It has a population of nearly a quarter million, with new generations emerging who are born there. It cannot be reasonably claimed that these camps are temporary. Some are even referred to as “human warehouses.” Formally, they are called “military camps”.
Hosting nations often require refugees to gain permission from authorities for basic activities such as children’s education, cooking, playing sports, watching films. This lack of control over one’s life and the lack of opportunity directly leads to discontent and boredom. This in turn leads to violence, substance abuse, and, critically, susceptibility to extremist ideology.
When the price isn’t right
Tens of millions are living in a suspended state of existence, under stress, unable rebuild their lives. People will continue to flee their homes until the causes of their flight come to an end. Violent conflicts, environmental disasters, and failing states aren’t going away soon.
There is no perfect solution.
65.6 million displaced people, a population 70% larger than that of California, represents a talent pool that is being kept out of reach by choice policies. Despite the legal, economic, and emotional hurdles, these are people eager to provide for themselves, and contribute to the countries that host them: in fact, the displaced are already a thriving, mobile economy by necessity. To support migration is a fundamentally moral, and ultimately, an economic imperative.