Parallel world of refugees grows faster than 8 billion

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The mark of 8 billion inhabitants is symbolic, of unprecedented gigantism. To a certain extent, however, it overshadows another world that is also growing fast, but without receiving as much attention: that of refugees.

From 2011 to 2021, the world population was 7 billion to 7.9 billion, an increase of 12%. The number of refugees ranged from 10.4 million to 21.3 million. In other words, more than doubled. Not to mention the 7.8 million Ukrainians who became refugees this year as a result of the Russian invasion. Nor are the Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948 included, who now number 5.8 million.

This refugee world, which French filmmaker Anne Poiret calls “Refugistan” in one of her documentaries, is inhabited by millions of people who have been forced to leave their homes. Often, they live in a precarious situation, without access to work, education, leisure or health care.

The 2016 film “Welcome to Refugees” portrays this world apart in which refugees live in a limbo situation — they belong neither to the societies of origin nor to those that have sheltered them. “It’s an outlawed world where no one offers a future or dignity,” Poiret tells Sheet.

It portrays limited, purposeless lives. Refugees spend their days in camps, with just the bare minimum to survive. In some cases, such as in the fields in Jordan, they cannot move or work. “We can’t pretend they’re not there. They’re there and they’re living the worst of all worlds”, says the filmmaker. “This is a global problem and therefore it needs to be solved globally. But how can we do that if the international system is broken?”

“It’s a colossal tragedy that could have been avoided,” says Chris Boian, a spokesman for UNHCR, the UN agency that deals with refugee issues. “To understand this growth, we have to look at the reasons why people leave their homes. Nobody wants to become a refugee, but they get to the point where they believe they have no other choice.”

The increase in the number of refugees is largely a result of the conflicts that ravage the world. “There has also been a change in the nature of these confrontations”, explains Boian, citing the example of the civil war that started in Syria in 2011, which spread 6.8 million refugees across the planet. “Instead of a traditional conflict between armies, we have seen a different type of violence, which involves non-state actors.”

Behind these conflicts is a complicated tangle of factors such as population growth and climate change. Droughts can destroy crops, lead to food shortages and thus motivate violent disputes over resources, for example. Like so many other specialists, Boian says, however, that the problem is not the lack of resources per se, but their mismanagement and distribution.

In the last decade, much has been said about the consequences of the growth of “Refugistan”, particularly in relation to European xenophobic discourses, based on the idea that local governments would be incapable of absorbing millions of entries. “But there are economic, social and demographic indicators showing that these societies can benefit from taking in refugees and allowing them to integrate,” says the UNHCR spokesperson. “We see refugees contribute in different ways. They work, pay taxes, create businesses and create jobs. Everyone wins.”

The focus on Europe, moreover, is misleading, as developing countries are now home to 83% of refugees. “Governments that have fewer resources are the ones that are taking the lead, but people pay more attention when refugees arrive in rich countries”, analyzes Boian.

There was indeed quite a bit of fanfare in 2015 with the arrival of Syrian refugees in Western Europe. The rise of the far right in Europe is, in part, related to this phenomenon. “Many people were scared and there were political repercussions, based on this fantasy they had about large waves of refugees”, points out Poiret. “But the heart of the matter is not Europe.”

Lebanon, for example, has one of the highest proportions of refugees per capita: 1.5 million people sheltering in a country that has less than 7 million inhabitants; this while going through what the World Bank has described as one of the world’s worst economic crises since the 19th century. “This shouldn’t be a political issue, it should be a humanitarian one. We should treat refugees as we would like to be treated if we were in their shoes.” “, says Boian

For Wooksoo Kim, director of a research institute on immigrants and refugees at the University at Buffalo in New York, it is clear that there are no easy solutions to a problem that is structural. “The growth in the refugee population reflects the worsening human condition around the world,” she says.

The urgency to resolve this crisis, however, should not only stem from the rapid increase in the refugee population, but also from compassion. “Regardless of the number of refugees in the world, whether it’s 1 million or 1 million, we should help them. We should want to help those in need.”

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