How Do We Live in a World With 66 Million Refugees?

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that in 2017 there were almost 66 million refugees in the world, more than at any time in human history.  These people became refugees because of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations (i.e. social unrest).  Of these 85% were from Africa and Asia.  Even when removing the 5.4 million Palestinians who are considered refugees according to the UN, but who are not necessarily without housing, that still leaves almost 50 million refugees in this category from just these two continents.

However, that is not the whole story.  There are also additional millions of people who are refugees because the lands in which they live can no longer provide basic nourishment.  Or perhaps there is insufficient water or not enough jobs available to allow people to live even on a subsistence level.

Where do these people come from?  According to the UN 85% of the world’s refugees hail from developing countries.  No surprise there.  However, the rate of increase is staggering.  The UN claims that 44,400 people are forced to leave their homes every day because of social unrest while countless others flee because the lands they live in cannot support them.

To some extent, this was predictable.  For those people who live in equatorial areas where there is a need for large amounts of water and few available resources, there is going to be significant movement.  Or, where corruption in government has created a political situation which makes it untenable to remain in those countries.  When the populations in those areas were relatively small 100 years ago, the situation was, more or less, manageable.  However, in many such locations birth rates were high and the population swelled to the point where today, the land can no longer support the population.

What people do in those situations is move to places where they perceive the opportunities to be greater.  Demographers doing their work after the end of World War II most certainly would have seen this coming and there is sufficient documentation to support that thesis.  But, the western world did not take those concerns seriously and now, not so many years later, the population shifts are causing havoc worldwide.

Certain countries in Central America are good examples of political mismanagement that has made living there impossible for the lower third of society.  Over the years, wealthier countries provided financial aid so that the governments of such countries could provide basic services to the population.  The U.S., for example, has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to address this need.

Now, because thousands of their citizens have sought asylum at the U.S. border with Mexico, the U.S. administration has cut $550m of this assistance after blasting the three countries for not preventing their citizens from moving north.  By any stretch of the imagination, it is cruel to cut off aid to countries grappling with hunger and crime.  Undoubtedly, this move will turn out to be counterproductive because it will more than likely increase the number of migrants than decrease it.  Washington has indicated that no further funds will be provided until the administration is satisfied that the countries are reducing the number of migrants reaching the U.S. border, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters.  And there is silence!

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Europeans are no less blameless.  European countries were in charge of many of the countries on the African continent in the mid-20th century and failed to address the water shortage issues.  Many other developmental challenges also remained unanswered.  Now they are seeing the result of that myopic view as refugees from Africa and Asia pour into Europe seeking new lives.

The world is no longer a place where any country can feel safe because it is separated from a problem by an ocean or a high mountain range.  There is no safety from disease, there is no safety from rampant migration, and there is no safety from fear.  While the great promise of the United Nations has yet to be fully realized, there will need to come a time in world history where the leadership will understand that isolationism is no longer an option.

Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said, “Border strengthening is effective, but not if done in isolation. We also need to give priority to establishing public institutions that deliver a sustained level of security and justice for citizens. Border security can never come at the expense of migrants’ rights. Nor can it be used to legitimize inhumane treatment.”

It is a lesson that governments will need to learn if society is to continue and something about which we cannot be silent.

 

About the Author
Sherwin Pomerantz is a native New Yorker, who lived and worked in Chicago for 20 years before coming to Israel in 1984. An industrial engineer with advanced degrees in mechanical engineering and business, he is President of Atid EDI Ltd., a 33 year old Jerusalem-based economic development consulting firm which, among other things, represents the regional trade and investment interests of a number of US states, Ontario and Hong Kong. A past national president of the Association of Americans & Canadians in Israel, he is also Chairperson of the Israel Board of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. His articles have appeared in various publications in Israel and the US.
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