The measure of humanity

  • A dire need exists for refugee resettlement

Every day, we see tear streaked faces of Rohingya Muslims or Syrians escaping injustice. Often in the background of their poignant photographs, we see rubbles of demolished buildings, torched huts, uprooted trees and vandalised villages. Among them, we see images of shattered dreams, a battered past and an uncertain future. Amid scores of unanswered questions and reproaching glances, what we look at are the portraits of refugees.

Today, refugees represent nearly a third or 30 percent of the world’s displaced population – people forced to leave their homes due to persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations. Unable to practice the birth right to live in their homeland, they seek refuge in other countries and thus, hope to make a strange land and unknown customs and language their own, only if they are accepted.

On the World Refugees Day this year, the United Nations member states agreed on a final draft global compact on refugees, aimed on actions to ease pressures on host countries and support conditions in countries of origin for refugees to return in safety and dignity. The UN General Assembly is expected to consider the compact for adoption later during the year.

‘The vast majority of the 24 million refugees in the world today are hosted in low and middle-income countries with scant resources and their own development challenges. A fairer, more robust system to share responsibility has never been more urgent,’ said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi as the final draft was presented.

When Grandi stated that the burden of refugees is shared most by low income countries, Pakistan ranks second in the list. The southern port city and commercial capital of Pakistan, Karachi, has since the independence of the country, held the tradition of welcoming refugees. The city became the focus for the resettlement of Muslim muhajirs migrating from India. This migration lasted until the 1960s and ultimately transformed the city’s demographics and economy. Following the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 and independence of Bangladesh, thousands of Urdu-speaking biharis arrived in the city, preferring to remain Pakistani rather than live in the newly-independent country. Large numbers of Bengalis also migrated from Bangladesh to Karachi during periods of economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s. This very decade also saw an influx of thousands of Afghan refugees from the Soviet war in Afghanistan into Karachi; who were in turn followed in smaller numbers by refugees escaping from post-revolution Iran. Today, it has been four decades since Pakistan has been hosting Afghan refugees, whose numbers have now swelled to millions.

It is one thing to hop on a riding wagon and cross borders towards greener pastures for one’s progress and it is another to leave a beloved place

In the United States, however, when historically it led the world in the resettlement of refugees, last year the number of refugees resettled in the US decreased more than in any other country. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the US resettled 33,000 refugees in 2017 — a steep drop from the previous year when it resettled about 97,000. Since 1980, the US has taken in three million of the more than four million refugees resettled worldwide. But now the Trump administration has lowered the refugee ceiling to 45,000 refugees.

Not only that, US President Donald Trump had said earlier that he had no authority to stop separations of undocumented immigrant families at the border, an argument and an order Trump had to reverse after he faced intense pressure from religious, political and world leaders. The separations of families from their offsprings had produced days of heart-rending news coverage of crying children, some of whom were kept in cage-like detention centres.

Trump’s war, however, is more against those who illegally cross border in the hope to make the United States their home, people for whom Donald Trump bitterly announces ‘zero tolerance’. Refugee resettlement involves a different group of migrants than those seeking asylum. Asylum seekers migrate and cross a border without having received prior legal permission to enter their destination country, and then apply for asylum. Resettled refugees, by contrast, don’t enter their destination country until they have legal permission to do so, because they apply for refugee status while in another country. The refugee approval process can take several months or years while destination countries complete security checks on prospective refugees.

The number of refugees worldwide has climbed for six consecutive years. Some 68 million people are now displaced by violence and persecution — equal to a fifth of the population of America, nearly half that of Russia, and more than the entire population of the United Kingdom.

At the same time, humanitarian support is chronically underfunded. The UNHCR and its partners have received less than 17 percent of the funds they need this year to provide basic assistance to millions of Syrian refugees and displaced people. More than 80 percent of all refugees and displaced people live in low and middle-income countries. Only a tiny fraction of all refugees – less than one percent globally—are resettled, including in western nations.

As many as two-thirds of all the refugees under UNHCR’s mandate come from just five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. Peace in any one of those five countries, creating the conditions for people to return home, would bring the numbers of refugees worldwide down by millions.

The urge for peace in the world cannot be stressed on but more. It is one thing to hop on a riding wagon and cross borders towards greener pastures for one’s progress and it is another to leave a beloved place, your source of identity and childhood memories in an attempt to flee from hatred. In the past, those who escaped persecution and have since then lived in other countries, whether from Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Palestine or Kashmir, still dream of their roots of belongings, the very soil from which they were raised, the sweet whispering of their language of birth in their surroundings. They may have now been accepted by others like their own, but the painful difference between acceptance and rightful inheritance cannot be understood more than those who suffer it.

Resettlement of refugees must entail a two way approach. Firstly, provision of a safe haven where they are secure from violence and danger to life. Secondly, refugees even if resettled elsewhere, do not get a sense of belonging completely, simply because they had to leave their birthplace forcibly in circumstances of emergency. Their longing to see their homeland, to breathe and be buried there lasts for a lifetime. It would only be appropriate and necessary, if the conflict in their land is resolved and situations are improved so that refugees could move back and thus, end their status of seeking refuge in a foreign land.

As Angelina Jolie, a special envoy of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, aptly sums up, ‘We live in divisive times. But history also shows our ability to unite, overcome a global crisis, and renew our sense of purpose and community with other nations… We are being tested today and our response will be the measure of our humanity’.