Forced Migration: the 60 million question

Last year just under 60 million people across the world were displaced, either by violence within their own countries or as refugees – the highest number ever. The United Nations Refugee Agency reports that this includes nearly 14 million people newly displaced in 2014. Others have been stranded for long, and lengthening, periods; more than 2.5 million in the Darfur region of Sudan; 1.5 million Afghan’s still living in Pakistan.

On the other side of the equation, less than 127 000 refugees returned home last year, the lowest number in more than 30 years. Given that there is little sign of solutions to the primary conflicts driving forced migration, these numbers will continue to escalate. Rather than in far-away places, the front lines are now the beaches of Italy and Greece, and at Calais.

As many experts have pointed out, the scale of this global displacement makes most existing policies and practices redundant. Apart from the numbers of people involved, there are political and economic interconnections that will make it impossible for governments in the West and North to portray this as an issue in distant lands, amenable to lessons in democracy, well-targeted aid and a firm but fair hand.

The current situation in Syria is bound up in US and EU policies and economic interests in the Middle East and in the stand-off with Russia. The roots of the Taliban are in Western support for insurgents resisting the soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

But for politicians, immigration is a doorstep issue; most people significantly over-estimate the extent of immigration and few politicians have the courage to correct prevalent misinformation.

Consequently, the poorest countries carry a disproportionate burden of response. Lebanon has the highest proportion of refugees, with 232 per thousand residents. Jordan carries the next heaviest burden with 87 refugees per thousand. One in four refugees now finds shelter in middle or low income countries, with Turkey, Iran and Pakistan taking the largest numbers. This, in turn, risks destabilizing already fragile economies, leading to still-greater migration.

In comparison, the country with the highest proportion of refugees in Europe is Sweden, with 15 refugees per thousand residents. The United Nations’ special rapporteur for the rights of migrants has called on the European Union to host one million Syrian refugees. While this has been dismissed as an impossibility by some EU governments, the overall population of Europe is 740 million. Were the EU as a whole to offer refuge to a million more, this would increase their overall refugee ratio by less than one per thousand – a fraction of the burden being carried by poor countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya and Ethiopia.

The latest European Union response to the current Mediterranean migrant crisis demonstrates starkly the lack of fit between proffered solutions and the extent of the problem. The offer of asylum to 40 000 refugees currently in Italy and Greece will be welcomed by those who will benefit but will leave many times more without resolution. The accompanying resettlement scheme for up to 20 000 Syrian and Eritreans is voluntary; the UK has already declined to take part.

One key deficiency is that approaches are being developed without consultation with refugees. François Crépeau, the UN’s special rapporteur:

Think about trying to make policies about women without consulting women. The policies that we made before women got the right to vote were policies based on fantasies – the fantasies that we men had about women. That’s the problem today: most of our immigration policies are based on this nationalist, populist discourse which has been prevailing in Europe and elsewhere now for the past 30, 40 years.

There is a particular role for education in developing such long-term policies. The United Nations estimates that about half of those displaced are children. Crépeau makes the point that migration is generational; full economic integration may take several generations to achieve and this requires education policies that can stimulate innovation and contribute to the development of the labour market.

The eventual reconstruction of countries damaged by conflicts will require appropriate levels of expertise that must be developed in exile. As Turkey has found, as one of the countries bearing the primary burden of displacement from Syria, universities need to anticipate and plan for the future needs of young adults who have been caught up in the consequences of sustained conflicts.

António Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in releasing the latest report on global displacement:

For an age of unprecedented mass displacement, we need an unprecedented humanitarian response and a renewed global commitment to tolerance and protection for people fleeing conflict and persecution.


Somini Sengupta, New York Times, June 18 2015. “60 Million People Fleeing Chaotic Lands, U.N. Says”.

Patrick Kingsley and Sam Jones, 26 June 2015. “EU sidestep on migrants will do nothing to curb Mediterranean death toll”.

Sam Jones, Guardian Global Development, 30 June 2015. “EU needs 25-year plan to deal with migrants, says UN envoy”.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s