Our response to the plight of refugees in the coming year will be the measure of our humanity, writes Angelina Jolie, actor and special envoy of the UNHCR
The number of refugees worldwide has climbed for six consecutive years. Some 68m 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 Britain.
At the same time, humanitarian support is chronically underfunded. As of September 2018 the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and its partners had received just 31% of the funds they needed to provide basic assistance to millions of Syrian refugees and displaced people. The same dire situation exists elsewhere too, with less than half the amount of humanitarian funds needed in the vast majority of conflict-affected countries. If nothing is done, this trend of growing numbers and scarce resources will continue, with severe consequences, in 2019.
This is not a sustainable situation. The answer does not lie in countries adopting harsh unilateral measures that target refugees and that run counter to humanitarian values and responsibilities. That will only inflame the problem.
Instead, we must reduce the number of displaced people worldwide by preventing and solving the conflicts that drive them from their homes. We must rally people and countries to act together based on common interests and universal aspirations for security, dignity and equality. This does not have to come at the expense of our safety and economic well-being at home, but is an essential requirement when facing problems of international dimensions.
Rights, funding, action
Let’s look at the facts. First, 85% of all refugees live in low- and middle-income countries. Most people who are displaced by violence remain within the borders of their own countries. Those who are forced out tend to stay as close as they can to home, in neighbouring nations. Less than 1% of all refugees are resettled, including in Western countries. The world’s poorer countries are bearing the brunt of the burden. We cannot assume that they will continue to do this irrespective of policies in wealthier nations. If the number of refugees grows, as it probably will in 2019, so too will the tension this imbalance causes unless we do a better job of sharing responsibility.
Second, for all the generosity of taxpayers in the West and all the lives that are saved by this, the billions of dollars in humanitarian aid provided annually do not come close to meeting the needs of 68m forcibly displaced people, let alone if the numbers keep growing. Third, as many as two-thirds of all the refugees under the UNHCR’s mandate come from just five countries: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. Peace in any one of them would create the conditions for people to return home, and reduce the numbers of refugees worldwide by millions. In democracies we, as voters, should challenge our politicians to answer how their policies address the roots of the problem.
We’ve managed to bring the numbers down before. When I first started working with the UNHCR in 2001, the number of refugees worldwide was falling. One of my first missions was to accompany returning Cambodian refugees. I met some of the many people who returned to their homes after the end of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Look further back in history, and after the second world war millions of refugees were resettled.
This strategy will take vision and persistence and strength. Not the parody of strength involved in tough talk against refugees, but the resolve, will and diplomatic skill needed to negotiate peace settlements, stabilise insecure countries and uphold the rule of law. A refugee is a man, woman or child at their most vulnerable: forced from their home, living without the protection of their state, and in many cases without the bare means of survival. It is the human condition that tests our belief that all human beings have equal rights and deserve protection.
We live in divisive times. However, history also shows our ability to unite, overcome a global crisis and renew our sense of purpose and community with other nations. That is the greatest strength of an open society.
In 2019 we should not leave the debate to those who would exploit public anxiety for political advantage. We are being tested today. Our response will be the measure of our humanity.