As a European and a Swede (and an economist), I am struck by how often we discuss refugees in terms of the “cost” of accepting asylum seekers.
These conversations miss out on the many economic benefits of migration. Young refugees are often so inclined to start building their new lives that they integrate quite quickly into a new country with much to offer. We also miss the most important component of the conversation – the refugees themselves.
Wars, violence and persecution lead to people fleeing from their homes. A new report released on June 19, 2019 from UNHCR shows that 70.8 million people are now forcibly displaced worldwide – more than the UN Refugee Agency has ever recorded. Levels have doubled in the past 20 years and increased by 2.3 million people in the past year alone.
This year’s UNHCR Global Trends report states that these figures are conservative since the Venezuelan crisis is only partly reflected. According to data from neighboring nations, about 4 million Venezuelans have fled the country, which makes it one of the world’s largest displacement crises in recent history.
What do these numbers actually mean?
The majority of individuals who are forcibly displaced are Internally Displaced People (IDPs) – people who are displaced to other areas within their own country. There are 41.3 million IDPs worldwide. Refugees – people forced to flee their country because of conflict, war or persecution – accounted for 25.9 million people worldwide in 2018 (half a million more than in 2017). Asylum seekers are people outside their country of origin who receive international protection but are awaiting the outcome of their claim to refugee status. They account for 3.5 million people globally.
Now, here are some important facts:
- About 80% of refugees live in countries neighboring their countries of origin
- The world’s poorest countries host a third of all refugees worldwide
- High income countries (like most countries in Europe) host only 2.7 refugees per 1,000 of population on average
- In 2018, every second refugee was a child
Research shows that women and children are the most vulnerable in times of crisis. Sexual violence and rape is used as a weapon of war to further inhibit civilian populations to fight for peace and their fundamental human rights. One very recent case of this is Sudan today.
Europe has seen a surge of refugees since 2014. Many have risked their lives in horribly overcrowded rubber dinghies to cross the Mediterranean Sea for safety – sometime without functioning life vests. UNHCR estimates that over 17,800 people have died at sea between 2014 and 2018. In this year alone, the UN Refugee Agency estimates that 559 people have died and are missing.
The largest group of people seeking refuge in Europe after crossing the Mediterranean are from Afghanistan.
The war-torn nation was recently reported as the most dangerous country in the world, and 2018 was the most deadly year ever recorded for civilians in Afghanistan.
So what is Europe doing to support asylum seekers from Afghanistan and those crossing the Mediterranean Sea? From what I understand and see in my daily life in Sweden – not enough.
This week, the Swedish parliament voted to extend a “temporary” stringent law which has been highly criticized by humanitarian aid organizations and UN Agencies. Sweden, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and other countries in Europe continue to deport individuals back to Afghanistan – many of whom arrived in Europe as unaccompanied minors several years ago.
Sea rescues have been criminalized as NGO rescue ships are no longer permitted to work out of Italy. Pia Klemp, a German boat captain, faces 20 years in prison and horrendous fines for saving people from drowning in the Mediterranean.
Sweden is using old prisons to forcibly detain high-school attending, Swedish speaking young asylum-seekers from Afghanistan who await deportations. The wait may last several months and the migration and judicial system for asylum seekers is highly criticized. Racism is becoming more visible.
This week, a friend of mine who is an Afghani asylum seeker in Sweden was harassed by police for no reason as he got off a train. We later found out from migration officials that they have been ordered to intimidate asylum seekers so that they will be more inclined to return voluntarily.
Despite being an eternal optimist, I have a hard time seeing anything positive in this stark situation. The message that Europe is sending is that some lives are valued less than others – that some lives are just not important enough to be saved.
“While language around refugees and migrants is often divisive, we are also witnessing an outpouring of generosity and solidarity, especially by communities who are themselves hosting large numbers of refugees. We are also seeing unprecedented engagement by new actors including development actors, private businesses, and individuals, which not only reflects but also delivers the spirit of the Global Compact on Refugees,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugee Filippo Grandi.
“We must build on these positive examples and redouble our solidarity with the many thousands of innocent people who are forced to flee their homes each day.”
We are facing a European crisis that will cost us our solidarity, our humanity and our safeguarding of human rights. The price is too high. If we lose these, we won’t have anything of value left.
I am thankful to be a part of the Swedish Facebook group Vi står inte ut! (We can’t stand it!) which has become a network of 10,000 individuals working to support asylum seekers in various ways. It is through networks like this one that I witness solidarity and fire to fight for our sisters and brothers from other countries.
It is difficult to continue to read and share the stories of refugees, but we must speak the unspeakable, break the silence and fight for a change in our world today.