(Written by Deepti Menon)

The word ‘refugee’ conjures up a vision of a long line of displaced persons, who walk in a ragged line, having lost everything in their lives. Eyes filled with despair, they trudge towards a future that seems to loom ahead with dreadful uncertainty.

According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Another definition of the word ‘refugee’ is ‘asylum seeker’.

Climate change can also displace people and these are known as ‘climate refugees’ or ‘climate change refugees’.  They do not move beyond borders and boundaries, but only travel short distances.
Europe grapples with a tough situation as, in 2015, an upsurge of almost a million migrants and refugees crossed the Mediterranean, leaving the European Union perplexed over how to handle the situation. Most were from Syria, but the out-of-control violence in Afghanistan, excesses in Eritrea and the poverty in Kosovo caused people to shift their base. Countries like Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Spain, Italy and Malta are some countries which have opened their doors to refugees. Germany and Hungary have accounted for the largest influx. The situation now seems to be spiralling out of control as an enormous burden has been placed on most of these countries who are trying to accommodate the newcomers. Britain has agreed to grant asylum to 20,000 Syrian refugees for five years.

The Past

The 20th century saw a mammoth displacement of people from their homes, when after World War II, millions of war-weary Germans were ousted from the-then Soviet Union under the arduous reign of Joseph Stalin. When the League of Nations fell through, and the United Nations was set up, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration in 1944 and the International Refugee Organization (IRO) in 1947 were both established to overlook refugee issues that had erupted after WWII.

On 14th December 1950, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) eclipsed both the previous agencies and was commissioned to be the most significant agency to safeguards the rights of refugees, and bring the world together under a common umbrella to synchronize international actions to find solutions to their problems. The UNHCR, over the decades, has attempted to aid refugees to seek asylum in other countries, giving them three choices; to go back to their homeland, to find a new home in the country they have sought asylum in or finally, to look for resettlement in a third country.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres does not see a light at the end of the tunnel any time soon. On the fourth of September, 2015, he pronounced, “Europe is facing its biggest refugee influx in decades. More than 300,000 people have risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea so far this year. Over 2,600 didn't survive the dangerous crossing, including three-year-old Aylan, whose photo has just stirred the hearts of the world public. After arriving on Europe's shores and borders, they continue their journey  facing chaos and suffering indignity, exploitation and danger at borders and along the way.”

He went on to say elsewhere, “The Iraq-Syria crisis gained the dimension of a mega one... and at the same time the old crises have no solutions.” He appealed to the wealthier countries in the Persian Gulf and Europe to “have their doors open” and help refuges to pick up their lives and live in dignity again.

The main asylum seekers are from Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran. Turkey has emerged as the world’s biggest refugee host for now. However, after four years of the crisis in Syria, the EU countries have still not been able to come up with an appropriate situation.

Problems faced by Refugees
One can only imagine the trauma that refugees go through, having lost all their possessions in life, including the homes. If that were not bad enough there are many more tribulations that await them at their destinations. The cultural transition can overwhelm many as they struggle with the pain of resettlement.  At times the host countries go out of their way to address their problems, but often, basic necessities like health care, education and job avenues are difficult to come by. There are, however, times when the main populace turns a blind eye to the issues of the ‘outsiders’, sidelining them, or more frighteningly, heaping racial abuse on them.

Women and children are the ones who are worst-hit in refugee camps. While poverty is a great leveller, women have to deal with sexual violence, discrimination and human trafficking issues. They are vulnerable to predators from outside, but also suffer from discrimination within as well. Often they have no voice in the unravelling of their lives, and wallow in fear and uncertainty. Sad it is to see that rape is one way of making women break physically and emotionally.

The lack of hygiene and privacy, clean water and sanitation, leads to diseases like cholera, dysentery, diarrhoea, fever and malaria, which can be life-threatening. Even more dangerous are maternal health problems, in the absence of adequate health care facilities, and women often deliver their babies without doctors or medical staff around.

Gender-based violence can also be particularly humiliating for refugee women, arising from “displacement, uprootedness, the loss of community structures, the need to exchange sex for material goods or protection all lead to distinct forms of violence, particularly sexual violence against women.” "Sexual and Gender-Based Violence against Refugees, Returnees and Internally Displaced Persons". UNHCR. Retrieved, 13 April 2011.

Children in refugee camps are also in physical, emotional and psychological peril. For a child, growing up in a stable and secure atmosphere is mandatory for his proper growth and development. When he is uprooted thus, he finds himself helpless in a hostile environment. Girl children are also prone to sexual assaults, which could lead to teen pregnancies at an age when they can barely take care of themselves. This could lead to grave health problems for mother and child, especially in the absence of proper medical age, and later on, psychological support. Sexual abuse could also lead to the outbreak of sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS.

Children face all the problems faced by women refugees. Often they grow up too quickly, often because they are forced to work and take care of their families.  An even more terrifying statistic is the number of children who are picked up and recruited by terrorist organizations. UN statistics reveal that over fifty percent of the Syrian refugees are below the age of eighteen.

Now that the immensity of the refugee problem has been realized, what are some of the solutions that could solve this crisis? Here are a few that could work:
  • Safe routes to sanctuary, visas supplied to refugees
  • Organized search and rescue operations
  • Aid for resettlement of the displaced
  • Crossing borders even without travel documents, by land or by sea.
  • Counsel host countries to eschew racism and avoid blaming refugees for socio-economic issues
  • Remind the wealthier nations to fund the ‘financially broke’ UN
  •  Come down hard on traffickers who exploit the displaced refugees
  • Provide asylum, in the true sense of the word, to refugees, treating them with dignity and respect

The flip side of the refugee problem is that in certain cases, host countries have been assailed by miscreant refugees who have created havoc in their lives by misbehaving with the locals.  These cases are very real, even if they are more rare than not, and the hosts are hard pressed to control them. While these cases need to be put down with an iron hand, it would be wrong to tar all refugees with the same brush. After all, one swallow does not a summer make! 

Another looming crisis hovers over the European Union. In Germany, the influx for 3000 to 4000 refugees as opposed to the estimated 2000 is alienating Chancellor Merkel, and her policy of unrestricted asylum, from even her allies. As protests intensify, the turning away of refugees threatens the end of Schengen, the Euro and consequently, the European Union itself.

Finally, if all nations could come together, and take a vow to make peace and humanity their goals, and uphold the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity, and open their arms out to assuage the sorrows of displaced souls across the world, that might be the start to a brave new world for all of humanity.