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18 December 2019updated 04 Oct 2023 11:47am

R is for Refugee crisis: A decade of displacement

By Anoosh Chakelian

A grim world record was broken in the middle of this decade. Displacement of people by war and persecution reached a historic high in 2015, with 24 people forced to flee each minute, according to the UN Refugee Agency. One in every 113 people globally was thought to be either an asylum-seeker, internally displaced or a refugee.

Although the number of people fleeing their home countries had been on the rise since the Nineties, the first five years of this decade saw the rate increase. That year, just three countries – Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia – accounted for nearly half of the world’s refugees. Colombia, Syria and Iraq had the largest numbers of internally-displaced people – those who have fled their homes but have not crossed a border in pursuit of safety.

Certain conflicts, like those in Somalia and Afghanistan, have lasted over three decades, and more recent civil wars in Syria, Yemen, South Sudan and Central African Republic have broken out since 2010. The Arab Spring in the early 2010s also led to a rise in the number of people leaving the region to seek asylum elsewhere.

Fall-out from the civil war in Burundi, which ended in 2005, the conflict in Ukraine and a drastic rise in people fleeing gang warfare and violence in Central America further contributed to this decade of displacement. (See “D is for Drones” to read more about the conflicts that have inflicted misery and bloodshed on so many civilians this decade.)

In 2018, another record was hit, with the number of people fleeing war and persecution exceeding 70 million – the highest level the UN Refugee Agency had ever seen since it was created in 1950.

As it became clear the world was on the move – and will continue to be, with the ravages of climate change particularly in developing countries – leaders in countries where people were heading for refuge began to respond.

The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland refused to let desperate people cross their borders at the height of the mid-decade refugee crisis, while Angela Merkel’s Germany welcomed 1 million refugees – a decision since reversed, in the face of far-right populist electoral success.

The world’s conscience was pricked in September 2015 when the body of a three-year-old Kurdish Syrian boy originally named as Aylan Kurdi (in his native Kurdish “Alan”) was photographed washed up on a beach in Turkey. As the child’s family had been trying to reach Canada, the story was an issue in 2015’s Canadian federal election, which Liberal leader Justin Trudeau won, promising to welcome 25,000 Syrian refugees that year. Despite photo ops greeting refugees before Christmas, the new prime minister’s government missed its revised target to resettle 10,000 Syrians by the end of 2015.

Nationalist and far-right parties began gaining ground across Europe, with cries for border control and often explicitly anti-asylum messages. (See “P is for Populism” to read more about this shift.) A week into Donald Trump’s US presidency in January 2017, he imposed a travel ban, or “Muslim ban” as it was widely nicknamed, which originally prevented nationals from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and Libya from entering the US for 90 days, stopped refugee resettlement for 120 days, and banned Syrian refugees indefinitely.

Countries neighbouring those in conflict take the highest proportion of refugees – a fact conveniently ignored over the decade by anti-immigration voices in the west. Lebanon and Jordan host the highest number of refugees relative to population size.

As for the UK, it allows people with refugee status here to be joined by their children under 18, and partner, if they were a family unit before they fled – grandparents, parents, siblings, children over 18 and other relatives are not eligible. It hosts the second largest number of resettled refugees in the EU overall, and comes seventh among EU countries for refugees it hosts proportional to the population.

What these figures overlook, however, is how the country’s “hostile environment” towards immigrants established in the coalition years (see “C is for Coalition” to read more about that period) generally created an unwelcoming environment for both newcomers and established migrant communities. This policy resulted in the Windrush scandal in 2018, when it emerged that people (chiefly from the Caribbean) welcomed to Britain in the Seventies were being wrongly detained, deported and stripped of legal rights.

The EU has generally tried to prevent people reaching its shores wherever it can: a deal with Turkey in 2016 to limit the influx of migrants; stopping migrant search-and-rescue boat patrols; enabling the Libyan coastguard to catch people heading to Europe by sea and return them to the war zone.

An estimated 2,275 died or disappeared crossing the Mediterranean in 2018 alone, with exploitative smugglers, poorly-maintained boats and active hostility from destination states like Italy further endangering those fleeing danger. As the poem by Warsan Shire, popularised on placards at pro-refugee protests over the decade, observes: “No one puts their children in a boat/Unless the water is safer than the land.”

> This article is part of our A-Z of the 2010s.

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