On the 18th of June, the Geneva Human Rights Council released a report apprising the number of displaced people globally. It now stands at 82.4 million – this number is the largest recorded in history and has more than doubled in the last ten years. If these 82.4 million people were given a piece of land, sovereignty over their lives, and citizenship, the country formed would be the 20th most populated place in the world.
Conflict, man-made and natural, is the principal cause for this unprecedented rise in the number of those displaced. Most refugees come from just five countries; South Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Venezuela enormous spike in the numbers of displaced people from these countries over the last ten years. Second, it will point to the pressing issues that will drive populations into exodus in the coming years.
The Arab Spring and surrounding countries:
The beginning of the Arab Spring is attributed to a Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi. Unfortunately, harassment from the corrupt and brutish local police was a constant theme throughout his day. On the 17th of December 2010, Mohamed reached his breaking point – he set himself on fire. This act of rebellion and sacrifice sparked a series of demonstrations and then protests against the Tunisian authoritarian leader President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Ten days later, Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia. However, the movement’s momentum did not cease; protests spread across the Middle East and North Africa.
In Syria, protests began on the 15th of March, four months after Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of defiance. The country’s young population was calling for President Bashar al-Assad to resign and for his family to give up the presidency they had held for the last forty years. After the Syrian army fired on demonstrators, a strong opposition force rose. Most of the battles took place within local townships, and their brutality terrorized civilians. As of 2021, over 6 million Syrians have been forced to flee to other countries. At the same time, a similar number remains internally displaced within Syria, with little escape from the continuing violence.
Though South Sudan did not exist, when the Arab Spring protests erupted, the country formed months later and then dissolved into conflict within the next two years. Preceding South Sudan’s independence, a long and bloody civil war had been waged in Sudan. Simplified, this war represented the tensions between the Northern Muslim groups and the Southern Christian groups. In 2011, after strengthened international attention, a vote on whether Sudan should split was placed on the nation. An overwhelming 99% of votes were in favor of severing ties. However, as Jennifer Williams writes in Vox, once South Sudan was split, the unresolved tensions between the sixty-four different ethnicities of South Sudan resurfaced.
President Salva Kiir was a member of the Dinka tribe. Appointed as his Vice President was Riek Machar, a Nuer (who had previously carried out massacres on the Dinka tribe). In 2013, Machar started publicly criticizing Kiir’s policies. Kiir responded by firing Machar and all of his cabinet. Soon after, chaos reigned as supporters of Machar clashed with supporters of Kiir. In the following years, this turned into widespread violence inclusive of the whole country. Despite multiple shaky agreements to peace, resolve is still far in the future. Currently, there are 4.3 million people displaced from Sudan. Over 63% of these are children.
Venezuela is unique in producing one of the most significant numbers of displaced people worldwide, despite no civil war, genocide, or environmental disaster. The humanitarian issues are prevalent in Venezuela pivot on the devastating economic situation that has arisen in the last twenty years. The rise and decline of oil prices have hinged financial security on the movements of the external market. Coupled with government frugality, strict international controls over the market, and what The Business Insider called “an authoritarian regime”, the Venezuelan social, economic, and political situation has become balanced on precarious stakes.
A devastating shortage in natural gas, electricity, water, fuel, and most importantly, food and medicine have inflated Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis. Over 185,000 children are receiving nutrition through the World Food Program. In 2019, 15% of the children in Venezuela were at risk of dying from malnutrition. Since 2015, more than one-sixth of the population has left Venezuela. This amounts to 5.6 million people, larger than the numbers from war-torn South Sudan. People complete dangerous land and sea crossings to escape the consequences of the hyper-inflated economy. In June 2021, there were up to 2,000 people leaving the country every day. Beyond these numbers, are a further 7 million people still within Venezuela in need of assistance.
Myanmar and the Rohingyas who cannot return:
Since the 1970s, the Myanmar government has been steadily tightening controls around the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group. Before 2017, the population mainly resided in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. Though they settled in Myanmar in the 16th century they are still recognized as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They, therefore, do not receive recognition or citizenship as one of Myanmar’s 135 ethnic groups.
The Rohingya label surfaced in the 1950s as a way to collectively organize and identify as a single political and ethnic group. However, this political title is mainly disregarded by the Myanmar government. For example, in the national census, Rohingya have to identify as ‘Bengali’. Daily the Rohingya have to carry “national verification cards that effectively identify them as foreigners and do not grant them citizenship”. In addition, they need to apply for special permission to get married, move house, travel, and have more than two children. Thus, institutional control has effectively disempowered the Rohingya from participating in natural society.
The discriminatory practices of the government became life-threatening in August 2017 when a systematic series of attacks were carried out. Marked by the UN as “genocidal”, the military-led campaign destroyed hundreds of Rohingyan villages and killed around 6,7000 Rohingyan within the first few months. Women and children were raped and killed, civilians faced open fire, and strategically placed landmines barred people from fleeing into Bangladesh.
Now, a Rohingyan diaspora exists across surrounding countries. Most are concentrated in Bangladesh, which holds more than 900,000 refugees. However, this developing country struggles to provide more than an overcrowded camp for the displaced population. Many Rohingya refugees in this camp are waiting for the opportunity to return. However, Myanmar must first recognize them as citizens and assure their safety. The tug of war could go on indefinitely.
Developing and future Crises:
In the last decade, the impending climate emergency has changed its trajectory from being a niggling worry into an irreversible and imminent crisis. The far-reaching impacts of the next decade are still yet to be known. Still, it would be untrue to claim that the changing climate hasn’t begun to affect global communities.
In the Pacific Island of Kiribati, there may not yet be the next decade. Kiribati covers a geographical area that comprises 33 separate islands. The most densely populated area is Tarawa; here, between 1940 and 2021, the population increased from 1,641 to 50,000. The biggest attraction of Tawara is that it is not yet underwater. Many Kiribati residents had to make a move as rising sea levels swallowed what was once their home.
Not only are the residential areas becoming submerged, but storms are becoming more unpredictable and damaging. Additionally, the increasing salinity of the water table that surrounds Kiribati means crops cannot be grown and freshwater is becoming scarce.
In 2019, a landmark ruling by the UN Council determined that all signatories to the 1951 refugee convention must include “climate refugees” within their protection obligations. Sparking this was a legal case between New Zealand and the UN. New Zealand had sought to return a Kiribati man who applied for asylum under the claim that his Kiribati home would no longer be safe to return to and most likely disappear within 10-15 years. The United Nations ruling accepted that this danger was real.
Despite this being a small win for refugees, who can seek protection under an expanded definition, refugees are still being persecuted worldwide. Less than 1% of the 82.4 million will be resettled into a new country this year. Without an adjustment to global refugee processing systems, these people will still be pushed into inhospitable environments. Borders have become increasingly criminalized in the contemporary geopolitical debate. To plan for future crises, more needs to be done. Preemptive movement should focus on not what a refugee is, but how to facilitate safer and easier systems of movement, globally.