Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Trump's Muslim Ban: What is the Global Refugee Crisis?

Amidst the chaos surrounding the recent executive order on a 90-day ban on refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries and an indefinite ban on those fleeing the Syrian conflict, a factual understanding of the global refugee crisis has been lost. Courts have begun placing stays on the ban, including a nation-wide temporary restraining order that has had the justice department scrambling for alternatives. Nevertheless, while many media stories have reported on the unjustified choice of countries, on the disorganized implementation process, on the tens of thousands of visa-holders affected, and on the unconstitutionality of the proposed ban, somewhere the stark face of a crisis affecting most of the world has been forgotten.

Let the controversy not overshadow this simple fact: the world is facing a refugee crisis unparalleled since the end of World War II. More than 65 million refugees (or 1 in every 113 people) are displaced around the world. While the trend has been growing since the Cold War, it has accelerated sharply in the past two decades, as new internal conflicts explode and past ones, such as the war in Somalia and Afghanistan, enter into third and fourth decades. Alongside Syria (in its sixth year of conflict), these countries produce the largest number of refugees fleeing persecution, the brutality of war or decimated cities with little to no remaining infrastructure, where tribal warfare and insecurity reign unbridled.

Refugees, defined as those who flee their homes because of persecution, war or violence, constitute about 21 million of the 65.3 million people displaced. The 40 million remaining are internally displaced persons, or IDPs, persons who remain in their country but have fled their homes for another location due to violence or persecution. Importantly, migrants are a completely different group, leaving for reasons such as financial hardship, and are mostly considered as 'able' to return - and therefore not as vulnerable. Because peace building efforts and conflict resolution processes have either stalled or failed increasingly since the Cold War, refugees have little to no chance of ever returning to their homes.

These large numbers hide further complexities. For the first time, 51% of all refugees are children under the age of 18, up from 41% in 2009. From Anne Frank to the little boy lying dead on beach and the bloodied Syrian boy in ambulance, the face of the refugee is a child, as parents flee with their children, leaving the sick and the elderly behind.  The gendered dimension of the crisis is also inevitable: while President Trump has claimed that refugees are often "strong men" that instil fear, the numbers paint a vulnerably different picture: women and children myyake up 73% of the total number of Syrian refugees, and 50% of the global refugee crisis. Women and children now make up the majority of migrants and refugees crossing into Europe, especially through Greece, but systems continue to fail them: facilities particular to women's needs, healthcare services and personnel trained in maternal and sexual health and care for victims of gender-based violence have been markedly absent from the European response to the surge of people fleeing their homes. 

The journey of a refugee is harrowing, and crossing turbulent lands and waters is only one part. While Syria has widely been described as a hell unlike many others, Somalia presents itself as a failed state where a bloody conflict, famine and drought have pushed people into the refugee camps in Kenya, overpopulated already, and where refugees spend over two decades waiting for resettlement. Lack of government after the fall of Qaddafi in Libya has allowed for mounting tribal warfare, Yemen, apart from fighting a two year war with Houthi rebels is on the verge of a nation-wide famine and Iraqis and Afghanis continue to flee a rollercoaster of instability. Once across a border, or landed on a shore, refugees seek out the nearest UN office, that will process them into a refugee camp where they will be given access to minimal services: food provisions and basic healthcare, sometimes cash distribution, although this is still rare.

Then, the waiting begins. Although international law gives refugees the right to work, this right has been minimally, if at all, is rmplemented in camp host nations. Combined with restrictions on refugee mobility, camps are holding grounds of indefinite duration, where it is impossible to plan for the future. This is limbo: economic growth, education, progress of any sort is stunted, and for most refugees, this will last up to two decades (up from 9 years in 2009). Basic sanitation is sparse, and if 51% of the global refugees are children, note that refugee camps do not provide education. Children and adolescents often find themselves without education or vocational training, leading to future generations of untrained, ill-equipped adults. Camps continue to be marked as 'temporary settlements' and host governments are weary to change this language or offer any more services than 'essential,' fearing an influx of refugees into these camps. This is, unfortunately, far removed from the facts on the ground. The consequences of an uneducated generation of unsettled people can be no less than disastrous. When the UN has marked education as the single determining factor that can lift a nation out of poverty, it we are on the verge of ensuring a next generation will always be dependent on a system of state and humanitarian services that is unable to support them.

Whatever claims have been made by President Trump of people crossing US borders in droves, the numbers stand in stark contrast. Of the 5.5 million refugees that have fled Syria, only 10 000, or 0.2% of the Syrian refugee population, have been resettled in the United States. Indeed, the US takes in very few refugees compared to its size, GDP and population, a fact that has been obscured, but that significantly threatens the stability of the Middle East and Europe. It is developing regions, either by proximity or in compliance with international law, that host 86% of the world's refugees, either in camps or through resettlement programs, and this is cause for extreme and growing concern. President Obama had previously pledged to take in 100 000 Syrian refugees, and had only accepted around 12 500 in 2015 (of a total of 85 00 refugees) and fewer than 2000 by the end of 2016, with less than 200 before then. An indefinite ban on Syrian refugees and possible extensions or restrictions of numbers of overall refugees into the US threatens the security of these developing countries, where state and regional instability is being impacted by the influx of persons in need, and destabilizing an already precarious region.

In contrast to an American population of 324 million, Turkey, with a population of 80 million, currently has 2.7 million refugees within its borders, Lebanon, at 6 million, has 1 million refugees, and Jordan, with a population of 7.5 million, has 600 000 registered and about the same number of unregistered refugees. The sheer volume of persons is overwhelming already fragile infrastructure and unstable systems of governance in these countries with high unemployment rates. These nations rely on the United States and other developed countries to do their fare share in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, the Common European Asylum System and the United States Refugee Act, among others. Closing borders in America does not mean that this problem disappears, but it will exacerbate an already dire situation, not only for refugees but for the weak states that may collapse under their weight. Further collapsed or failed states in the Middle East is not in the United State's best interests, and poses a sharp threat to European stability. These are spheres of influence in which Russia has already begun to infiltrate, and with a recalcitrant America, unwilling in the past few years, to overstep in Syria, and with never ending wars in Afghanistan, this poses a serious threat to regional stability. 

The European Union is also deeply worried by closed American borders. The surge of migrants at the beginning of 2015 brought political chaos to the region, where, under European Union law, each country must accept a certain number of refugees in a given year. Germany's controversial decision to open its borders will surely be tested once more if Mr. Trump does not dramatically reverse the Executive Order. A closed American refugee system will also encourage right-wing governments and parties to decry the influx of refugees and migrants, and threaten the European Union's continued existence. Many refugees will inevitably end up in Turkey, posing a further threat to conflict and instability on the border with the EU, and allowing for Russia, already in Turkey's good graces, to extend the military influence it has shown in Syria.

According to the 1951 Convention on Refugees, those eligible for resettlement are the most vulnerable: women and girls at risk, survivors of violence and/or torture, family reunification, medical need, or children and adolescents at risk. From this pool, which is first established by the UN, the United States then chooses the refugees it wishes to take for further vetting process. Importantly, this is a slow and lengthy process: and only 1% of refugees will ever be resettled. The proposed measures to increase this system of vetting, listed in the Executive Order, are perplexing, as they already exist in practice and form part of a long process that takes up to 36 months (on average 18) and involves 8 US government agencies, 6 security databases, 5 separate security checks, four biometric studies, three separate interviews by different agencies and numerous other measures of security. Syrian refugees have been subject to additional checks, making their wait process even longer.

The Trump administration has widely used attacks in Europe as the basis for 'extreme vetting'. Contrary to many European countries, for widely historical and colonial reasons, once in the United States, refugees tend to be extremely well integrated. As Davis Miliband from the International Rescue Committee says, integration doesn't happen by accident, but by design. With a vast amount of services for integrating refugees within their host states, education, language and employment opportunities and with networks of support among communities, refugees in the United States are some of the most highly integrated in the world. Indeed, it has been widely recognized that stability and security are reinforced by solid refugee integration, and on this account, America has succeeded.

A visa to the United States as a refugee is the most difficult process to undergo for resettlement. Perhaps the most shocking data point is that only 1% of refugees are ever recommended for resettlement by UNHCR. Today, the merits of this Executive Order will be heard in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. It is in the world's best interests that this global humanitarian crisis is not ignored or lost in the outcome. 

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