Saturday is World Refugee Day, but it seems like the World Refugee Decade. Over the last 10 years, the number of those forced to flee because of wars, conflict and persecution has soared from 37.5 million to a record 59.5 million, according to a U.N. report released Thursday.
Today, one out of 122 people in the world is a refugee, an internally displaced person or an asylum-seeker. That staggering figure equates to the world’s 24th-most populous country. Tragically, half are children. And few flee directly to richer shores: 86 percent went to countries considered “economically less developed.”
The displacement rate is also record-setting, with last year’s jump the highest ever. While movement is within and between countries and continents, the epicenter is Syria, whose refugee crisis is the subject of this month’s Minnesota International Center “Great Decisions” dialogue.
But Syria’s is certainly not the only strife-driven diaspora. In the last five years alone, at least 15 conflicts have “erupted or reignited,” including eight in Africa, three in the Mideast, one in Europe and three in Asia. And this doesn’t count chronic conflict in places like Afghanistan and Somalia that has created long-term refugees.
Conflict is not the only reason for migration crises. The U.N. figures don’t even account for scores seeking a better life than their failed or flailing states deliver, like the pan-African exodus dangerously leaving Libyan ports and swamping an already beleaguered European Union.
Often, however, it’s a combination of factors. In the Indian Ocean, rickety boats of Bangladeshis in search of a better life mix with Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority seeking to just live apart from a brutal regime. Among the Central Americans testing Texas and other southwest states’ borders are people escaping both poverty and gang violence.
While these crises are chronicled in mass media, the mass movement hasn’t pierced global consciousness as previous upheavals have. For instance, despite less connectivity, depictions of Dust Bowl migrants and World War II refugees were still widely seen, evoking sympathy and prompting action.
But today, even though modern media disseminates how dictators and kleptocrats create or exacerbate these crises, policymakers seem paralyzed, not acting to mitigate the misery let alone solve the underlying problems.
“We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said in a statement accompanying the report. “It is terrifying that on one hand there is more and more impunity for those starting conflicts, and on the other there is seeming utter inability of the international community to work together to stop wars and build and preserve peace.”
The impunity is apparent in the durability of the homicidal Assad regime in Damascus, immorally supported by Moscow and Tehran. And just this week Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes, was allowed to jet from South Africa, whose leaders seem to forget that international institutions helped them end apartheid.
Of course, there are those who go to great lengths for those caught up in the global upheaval. In fact, some citizens may be ahead of their leaders, according to Daniel Wordsworth, president of the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee. Wordsworth, via e-mail from Uganda, said that, “As crises intensify and more people flee, the burden can become considerable for some communities. I think this is more accurately a result of the international community not sufficiently supporting these host communities/countries, rather than an innate hostility on the part of citizens.”
Some spiritual leaders have spoken up, too, including Pope Francis, who during his weekly general audience Wednesday offered this off-the-cuff comment: “I invite all of you to ask forgiveness for those who close the door on these people who are looking for a life, for a family and to be cared for.” A more secular approach from several celebrities has highlighted the ordeals of ordinary people under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.
But so far there hasn’t been a media moment that’s grabbed global attention or reframed the debate the way that “Migrant Mother,” Dorothea Lange’s iconic Depression-era photo, captured the individual humanity behind mass migration. Instead, this era’s arresting image comes not from a photo, but a security scanner that showed an 8-year-old African boy curled up in a suitcase, caught in a smuggling attempt to Europe. Unlike the sympathetic visage in Lange’s photograph, the ghostly, even ghastly, silhouette is faceless, as are so many caught up in this global human drama.
The heroes helping them need more support. So somehow some image, or individual, or institution needs to break through the international indifference. Because ultimately those world leaders who aren’t repressing, but responding to their citizens, need to feel compelled to act.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.