Ignoring refugee crisis at one’s own peril

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Ignoring refugee crisis at one’s own peril

The number of lives affected on account of displacement as a result of violence and extreme events, and now increasingly climate change, would perhaps equal those who suffer large-scale war impacts

World Refugee Day will be observed on June 20 this year, and it would take place against the backdrop of political concerns and developments triggered by the large-scale refugee crises in several parts of the world.  By then the presidential election in France would be over, but whichever way the election result goes, the shadow of the refugee crisis and its emotional and political impacts will not recede easily. This growing problem has already manifested its political implications in various countries, particularly in Europe and North America.

Last year, the UN reported on the World Refugee Day that the number of refugees in the world had reached the highest level ever recorded. It was estimated that the number of people displaced by conflict, which included refugees, asylum seekers or those displaced internally, was at an estimated number of 65.3 million by the end of 2015. According to the UN Refugee Agency, this number amounted to one in every 113 people on the planet, and if this huge number of human beings constituted a nation, it would be the 21st largest nation in the world.

In its Annual Report released on June 20, 2016, the UN stated that it was for the first time that the number in a year had crossed 60 million.  The staggering magnitude of this problem can be understood further from the fact that 24 people were displaced from their homes every minute during 2015 — which amounted to 34,000 people per day.

The then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, rightly described it as “not just a crisis of numbers” but “a crisis of solidarity”. It was also stated that more than half of the world’s refugees came from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. With the dropping of the largest non-nuclear bomb (sadly labelled as MOAB, the mother of all bombs) by the United States and the possibility of further escalation in the US’s involvement in Afghanistan, the numbers of those displaced from that country could go up significantly. There is, of course, deep concern all across Europe and consequent political tension on the issue of refugees. But, as the UN has stated, 86 per cent of the refugees under its mandate were in low and middle income countries. The old Sanskrit term, ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam; (the universe is one family) is appropriate in this context, because the current situation highlights the importance of the universal nature of the refugee problem. There is no part of the world which can remain immune to this crisis in some form or the other. There is every reason to focus on the root causes which result in migration and to address them effectively. It is also important to see that refugees are not marginalised and left without productive occupations and provided merely food and shelter and activities confined to camps. It is essential to provide children with education and communities of refugees with proper healthcare and opportunities to work.

Given the size of the challenge, the global community needs to come up with actions, infrastructure and support services to deal with this problem, which will not go away in the foreseeable future, and has every prospect of becoming larger and much worse over time.

One continent which is particularly vulnerable is Africa. A research-based publication found that at least 13 million people lived in a state of ongoing displacement caused by conflict, violence and other disasters across the continent in 2015. It also stated that in the future, climate change may become the lead driver of even greater displacement. In the Africa Report on Internal Displacement, research found that disasters triggered by rapid onset of natural hazards forced 1.1 million people from their homes across 33 African countries in 2015. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) had clearly highlighted and projected an increase in displacement of people as a result of the impacts of climate change.

These impacts would include extreme events such as heat waves, extreme precipitation events and extreme impacts associated with sea level rise. There would also be an increase in prolonged droughts and increased frequency and intensity of floods. Flooding in the case of Africa was the primary trigger of immediate displacement, forcing 14 million people out of their homes in the six-year period leading up to 2015. Early in 2015, 56,000 people were forced from their homes in Ethiopia because of severe flooding. Recently, when the Oroville dam in California was under the risk of bursting, almost 200,000 people were warned to leave their homes.  Fortunately, this crisis was avoided because the dangerous level of water in the dam subsided almost when it was at the brink.  Such a massive exercise would hardly have been possible in most poor countries. And in many poor countries droughts have a major effect on displacement as well on account of serious problems related to agricultural activities, pastoral livelihoods, and food security.

While we may feel satisfied with not having had to face of a world war on the scale of the first and second world wars in the 20th century, the number of lives affected on account of displacement, often as a result of violence and extreme events, would perhaps equal those who suffer the devastation of large-scale war. It is well known that the Pentagon, in several exercises has found climate change as a major security threat.  If impacts of climate change are going to substantially increase the number of people displaced, as projected by the IPCC, we would clearly lead to ongoing and perennial crises, which would in no way be less than the scourge of a world war, and which would affect the lives of a growing number of people in various parts of the globe. 


It is hoped that the Paris agreement on climate change will finally receive the attention it deserves not only from Governments, but also businesses and civil society, so that the level of ambition for tackling climate change is enhanced across this planet, and thus the risks to countries and communities from the impacts of climate change effectively contained. And, the time has come for the youth of the world to take the lead in this regard, first because their attitudes and consumption habits are still not rigidly frozen; and second, it is their future which is at stake. If this planet is to give them a life of opportunity and reduced risk from the impacts of climate change, then they must be at the vanguard of a global movement towards a secure and sustainable future for planet earth and all living species.

(The writer is former chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2002-2015)

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