During Refugee week, the work of the international agencies assisting migrants should be in the spotlight: the United Nations (UNHCR) and the International Office for Migration (IOM). In Kent, where we are most aware of the people risking their lives in little boats to cross the Channel, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, facts such as:
- Most refugees actually stay in regions close to their home countries
- Some are held for years in refugee camps
- If not in camps, many work in the most exploited labour conditions
- In some regions, they are fleeing from the results of global warming
- Many would like to return to their home countries, but not whilst those in power in those countries remain hostile to them.
Refugee week brings back memories for me: 30 years ago, I too received assistance from the UNHCR and the IOM. My husband had been a refugee from apartheid South Africa for some 15 years. Then apartheid crumbled and peace discussions began. The United Nations declared that assistance would be offered to refugees wishing to return to South Africa.
Our family had to register with an office in Birmingham in 1992. Greatly excited, we took the children out of school for the day and turned up at the address given: “Is this the United Nations?” the youngest asked. It was a Scout hut hired for the day.
However, the staff were efficient and took all our details, and informed us what we might be entitled to. In fact, we did not need most of it, as I got a job offer from University of Natal that included paying our family’s air-fares. We did however, accept an IOM subsidy for new school uniforms, and for my husband’s air-ticket.
He had an exhilarating journey home sitting next to other returnees, all hoping to re-establish in jobs and homes in South Africa. Sad to report, we never did get the subsidy for uniforms as the money was stolen in a Johannesburg office before it reached us in Natal.
This was a sorry harbinger of a worsening white collar crime in South Africa, which eventually got so bad that huge swindles in public enterprises turned off the lights and rationed electricity. However for a couple of decades I had an enjoyable career and our children completed their education there.
South Africa also became a receiving country for refugees from elsewhere in Africa, especially from Zimbabwe and Eastern Congo. There were reported to be 89,588 in 2019: about 153 per 100,000 of the population. That feels like more in the big cities where refugees and “illegals” compete fiercely for even the most unpleasant of jobs. They also face aggression from some nationalistic locals who promote the slogan “This land is for the Zulus”.
Where are most migrants nowadays?
Since 2016, the IOM has been part of the UNHCR. Both organisations have many decades of experience with refugees, both having started in the early 1950s to counter the refugee chaos in Central Europe following World War II. Then spectacularly in 1956 the Hungarian refugees from Soviet communism fled to Western Europe.
Across the decades, refugees from conflicts in different parts of the world have come to the UK in waves: South Africans, Vietnamese, Somalis, Afghans, Iraqis, Syrians, Eritreans and so on. But in fact, the UK is not the top destination for most refugees. Even in Europe, Sweden, Germany, and France have taken more refugees in recent years than the UK.
Most refugees tend to stay close to their home country. So conflict in the Middle East means that Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon are now mapped as having the greatest proportion of refugees, along with Pakistan which takes the refugees from Afghanistan.
It has been calculated that currently there are some 79.5 million displaced persons of which some 26m are refugees with the right to claim asylum. There are another 41.3 million who are internally displaced, three-quarters of those being women and children.
A crucial difference in the experience of refugees is whether they are allowed to disperse into the host population, to find jobs and homes, or whether they are forced to cluster in camps. In Turkey and South Africa, refugees are allowed to work which, although it can create friction with the locals, at least avoids unhealthy camps.
Where a destination country faces a sudden large influx, such as Bangladesh with the Rohinga fleeing from Burma, or on the Greek islands, refugees are forced to set up dense settlements, often lacking enough water or safe drainage.
There can be a time lag before the needs of such refugees are recognised by international aid organisations. I recall a story from the refugee camps of North Kenya, where the Somalis were receiving food parcels while the South Sudanese were starving because their refugee status was not yet recognised.
The health risks of living in crowded conditions is even more acute during this Covid pandemic. There has not been enough news about how or when some of the refugee camps of the world will receive the vaccine. Here in Kent, crowded conditions at the Napier barracks in Folkestone caused Covid to spread there last year.
International Organisation for Migration (IOM)
Increasingly, the term ‘migrant’ is used to describe people who leave their home country to seek a new life in another country. Some of these are fleeing conflict while some are fleeing collapsed economies, such as from Zimbabwe, or from Iran under sanctions.
It is sometimes almost impossible to distinguish between a refugee and an economic migrant.
The IOM works impartially according to criteria of assisting the most needy first in trying to both help the individuals and the government response to them. What is important is to strengthen the resilience of new migrants to enable them to cope and then to thrive in the host countries.
I hope the IOM is still as practical, courteous and down-to-details as those staff I encountered in that Scout hut in Birmingham 30 years ago.