Unresolved refugee and migration issues -The Nation

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On the bitterly cold Belarusian-Polish border, or should we say, the CIS-Russian and EU-European border, a terrible refugee crisis unfolds. The number of refugees is actually quite small, some few thousand, yet, they are all our brothers and sisters, many coming from outside Europe, but somehow ending up on that border of Poland—with hopes in their eyes, but despair and worries, too, blurred by cold and pneumonia. Thus far, the hearts and minds of the powerful and mighty are as frozen and cold as the wintery landscape.

It is six years since the large European refugee crisis happened when close to one and a half million people came to the EU countries. Before and after, there have been many dramatic situations when refugees have crossed the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa to reach the nearest EU countries of Italy and Greece.

Statistics show however, that on average there isn’t a very high percentage of people from outside the EU in the countries; it is actually a lower percentage (less than ten percent) than the percentage of foreigners in other high-income countries, such as Australia and Switzerland (about thirty percent each), Canada (over twenty percent), and Norway (about eighteen percent), according to OECD-figures from 2020. There is free movement of people within the EU, and that may well lead to some popular receiving countries feel that the influx of foreigners is very high, especially of people from eastern and southern European countries coming to the western and northern European countries. Since the UK was a popular country for other European, for language and other reasons, many wanted to study, work and live in the UK, and that certainly contributed to the UK pulling out of the EU.

Furthermore, many people from poorer countries, especially from many of the about fifty African countries, situated close to Europe geographically, would like to come to Europe as the continent is wealthy and rich. Besides, Europe needs foreign workers, partly because their populations are aging. In the Americas, there is a high pressure of immigrants wanting to reach the US, still being the ‘promised land’ for many people further south and elsewhere.

True, some of the immigrants are refugees and others are economic migrants and semi-forced migrants, seeking better opportunities in the West—yes, the latter is similar to what happened one-two hundred years ago when America was populated mostly by poor Europeans, and sometimes Europeans emigrated to escape religious intolerance and prosecution, and avoid conscription and be enrolled in the army. Today, there are over eighty million forced migrants in the world, and nobody seems to know how to solve the unworthy situation, neither practically, financially, nor morally—and maybe we are not really trying either, because many, probably all, situations demand drastic, unorthodox, structural solutions, as well as immediate humanitarian and other solutions, such as the current ones in Belarus-Poland, the Mediterranean Sea, Mexico-USA, and many other places.

We should recall that USA is made up of immigrants, except for the small percentage of badly treated indigenous people, and the Africans forced to come. Also, the EU, the ‘rich man’s club’, must be careful not to reserve their lands only for those who are already inside, keeping out Africans, Asians and others whom they have exploited over centuries. Europeans must try to live up to the human rights that we made for the whole world, and be tolerant and welcoming towards Muslims and other believers, refugees of all colours and creeds, and people of various cultural traditions and differences. It would be sad if Europe stopped welcoming refugees the way most of them actually feel they should.

And then, some more history: When the young Prince Saddrudin Aga Khan, a Muslim, became High Commissioner of the United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR in 1966 to 1977, he said he was shocked to realise that the refugee problem in Europe after WWII had not been solved after so many years. That time, there were still some hundred thousand refugees, especially from Eastern Europe. UNHCR had been established in 1950, adding competence and focus to what the Red Cross/Red Crescent, UN agencies, and key non-governmental organisations were doing. After WWI, the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations (1919-1946), and Fridtjof Nansen, often called the first refugee high commissioner, carried out impressive work. Yet, the establishment of UNHCR was very important and timely, and perhaps the West also expected more refugee-producing conflicts to occur, as happened.

During Prince Saddrudin’s time as chief of UNHCR, the number of refugees grew into many millions, with most being from the Third World, especially Africa, during the colonies’ independence struggle and after their independence. Other situations happened, such as when tens of thousands of South Asians were forced to leave Uganda under Idi Amin; and when Hutus were discriminated against by Tutsis in Burundi and had to leave. In Asia, Pakistan was affected in 1971, and Bangladesh even more. Other tragedies occurred, indeed in Vietnam, including the ‘boat people’. In the Middle East, the unresolved Palestinian situation goes on, and other tragedies. In our time, other Asian countries have been badly affected, indeed Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. African countries have again been refugee-sending countries. We should note that it is the neighbouring countries that generally host most refugees. Also, it is useful to know that some eighty percent of refugees are women and children, although in some situations, such as in certain recent periods in Europe, there are many young, single men.

Pakistan has been one of the largest refugee-hosting countries in the recent one and a half generation, having received some seven million people in all, mostly from Afghanistan; today there are less than two million Afghans in Pakistan. However, if the new Taliban regime is not moderate and relatively successful, creating some degree of future hope for people to live in Afghanistan, there could be a new increase in the number of Afghan refugees, especially to Pakistan and Iran, but also to Europe.

In Afghanistan, it is essential that food and humanitarian aid reach urgently, before and during the winter, and also that longer-term, more ordinary aid reaches the country and the people who depend on future assistance from abroad. It becomes a dishonest excuse if the West keeps questioning the Taliban regime’s control over the aid, making it a political issue. In any country at any time, aid must mostly be channelled through, or in understanding with, the government, whether the donors like them or not. International NGOs must work through existing administrative channels and in cooperation with local NGOs. If the foreign donors try to be very much involved in the direct distribution of aid, that would mean establishing costly alternative systems. We should realise that unless the recipients live in camps, the countries’ systems are better than trying to invent new systems overnight, which in any case would be difficult or impossible to do.

Let this be some of my thoughts about refugee issues today. I have spent decades of my working life working on refugee and development aid. We seem not to find lasting solutions to handle refugees and migrants as well as they deserve—as all human beings are equal and deserve care and mercy. This time, when will Europe face its moral and practical responsibilities and do what is best for the trapped people at the Belarus-Polish border?