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The Global Refugee Crisis: Can We Ignore It Much Longer?

 The Italian coastguard rescues survivors from a crash at Lampedusa Island. Lampedusa, the closest Italian island to Africa, has become a destination for tens of thousands of refugees seeking to reach Western Europe. Credit: Guardia Costiera

The Italian coastguard rescues survivors from a crash at Lampedusa Island. Lampedusa, the closest Italian island to Africa, has become a destination for tens of thousands of refugees seeking to reach Western Europe. Credit: Guardia Costiera

By Katherine Tan

Conflict, persecution, and human rights violations have forcibly displaced an unprecedented 59.5 million people worldwide at the end of 2014, according to a recent UNHCR report. That figure, roughly equivalent to the population of the United Kingdom, was up from 51.2 million the previous year, already a level unseen since World War II. From 2011 to 2014 alone, the total number of forcibly displaced people increased by 40 percent. The international community must do more to support them. Inaction will not stem the tide of forced migration; it will simply exacerbate the toll on countries already struggling to bear the burden. Developed countries must come to terms with the scale of this escalating crisis and commit to resettling more of the most vulnerable and persecuted refugees.

The global forced migration crisis is perhaps the most under-reported and disturbing development facing the world today. Even more troubling than the staggering figures are the tragedy’s human dimensions and governments’ hesitance to address the plight of refugees stranded in horrific conditions along coastlines and borders worldwide. This year, an estimated 1,750 migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean Sea, over 30 times more than during the same period last year. Meanwhile, in Southeast Asia, over 100,000 Rohingya have fled persecution and apartheid-like conditions in Myanmar. Many have endured starvation and brutality aboard overcrowded boats as they are ping-ponged between nations refusing to accept them. Others have suffered imprisonment, torture and death at the hands of Thai traffickers with alleged government complicity.

The international community’s response to this humanitarian crisis has been anemic at best and morally negligent at worst. The United Kingdom recently announced that it would not accept any migrants as part of the European Union’s agreement to redistribute 40,000 Syrian migrants already in Italy and Greece. London has faced backlash for accepting just 140 Syrian refugees so far this year. Indonesia and Malaysia, two comparatively well-off Southeast Asian nations, previously announced that they would turn back any Rohingya boats found along their shores. They later agreed to accept 7,000 stranded migrants, but only on the condition that those migrants would be resettled elsewhere within a year.

Underlying this crisis is an international system ill-prepared to tackle the current scale of displacement head on. According to Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, Research Director of the Danish Institute for Human Rights, developed states are primarily concerned with keeping migrants outside their borders so they can avoid responsibility for admitting refugees while technically complying with international law. This simply “passes the buck” to poorer states without addressing the problem. According to the UNHCR, the world’s poorest countries bear the brunt of the refugee burden, with 86 percent of refugees hosted by developing countries and one in four hosted by the least developed countries. This imbalance threatens to destabilize states already under pressure at the periphery of conflict zones and may lead to even greater migration rates if unaddressed.

The plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya poignantly demonstrates the international system’s failure to protect the most vulnerable refugees and the broader consequences of inaction. Stripped of citizenship rights by Myanmar’s military government in 1982, the Rohingya face severe persecution and mob violence as a Muslim minority in a majority Buddhist state. Today, they are confined to heavily policed ghettos where they are forbidden access to basic services and international aid.

The United States and human rights organizations have called upon Myanmar to recognize the Rohingya as citizens, but the ruling regime has shown little interest in stemming what observers call a “slow genocide.” Whether any appeal to Myanmar’s government will gain much traction in the foreseeable future is questionable. In the meantime, the international community has failed to resettle Rohingya refugees at rates necessary to ease regional pressures. Many Rohingya have flooded into Bangladesh, a country even poorer than Myanmar and with its own migration problems, thereby exacerbating the crisis.

These circumstances make a compelling case for developed countries to offer long-term resettlement to the Rohingya. However, Australia, one of the Asian-Pacific region’s wealthiest countries, has categorically refused to resettle any Rohingya, despite urging from the UNHCR.

“Australia will do absolutely nothing that gives any encouragement to anyone to think that they can get on a boat, that they can work with people smugglers to start a new life,” said Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Abbott’s callous statement ignores the fact that most Rohingya aren’t voluntary migrants, but victims of ethnic cleansing fleeing a state that has branded them pariahs. India and China, regional giants that share borders with Myanmar, also remain on the sidelines, despite holding significant sway with Myanmar’s government.

The international community has resettled refugees en masse before, most notably after the Indochina Wars of the mid-1970s, when the United States, Australia, Canada, and others resettled more than 3 million refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

With such a precedent, one must ask why states are failing to act decisively now. Indeed, they may soon have little choice. Even if humanitarian motives aren’t enough to compel action, these crises’ destabilizing effects may well prove difficult to ignore.

Katherine Tan is a fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and a development professional, specializing in private sector development.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.