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opinion

Robert Rotberg is the founding director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s program on intrastate conflict, a former senior fellow at CIGI and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation.

In this season of holiday celebration, there is nothing but relentless darkness for the globe’s untold millions of refugees and internally displaced persons. Not only are nearly two million Gazans displaced, as well as millions of Ukrainians, but incessant wars in Africa and Asia have forced millions to flee violence. They need the world’s attention and succour.

Refugees and displaced persons face massive shortages of services customarily provided by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other relief agencies. The world’s richest countries usually fund the UNHCR, but the organization has been beset by severe funding shortfalls this year. Wars in Ukraine and Gaza, climatic disasters in places like Bangladesh, and the escalating costs of staple grains – a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – have all diminished donations. The result is immense suffering for those already badly harmed by forced flights from customary surroundings.

In parts of Africa, food rations have been slashed, making the mere existence of thousands of people that much more precarious. Maize supplies, customarily used in East and Central Africa to make a starchy staple porridge, have been cut drastically. In a piece for The Conversation, university researchers report that the UNHCR is only managing to fund 39 per cent of Uganda’s urgent local food needs, while Burundi’s budget has declined by 12 per cent despite a 35-per-cent increase in its refugee population since 2018. “There is no food. There is no health care,” one Congolese refugee named Amani told the researchers. “We are being trampled.”

Food shortages for refugees lead almost directly to insecurity, a deeply concerning outcome given the large numbers of people who have been displaced by conflicts and are living in refugee camps across Africa. On its border with Somalia, Kenya’s Dadaab complex nominally houses more than 200,000 persons, refugees from a three-decade-old insurgency. Another 6.5 million frightened villagers have fled their homes in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo to escape marauding insurgent groups, particularly the Islamist Allied Democratic Forces and the March 23 Movement. Brutal battles in Sudan between the irregular Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and the Sudanese army have displaced about five million persons. A further 200,000 refugees from conflicts in Sudan and Ethiopia are housed in Camp Kakuma in the sparsely settled desert of northwestern Kenya. Some residents have sheltered there for two decades or more. Many have fled Sudan’s Darfur region, in the west, where the RSF is ruthlessly killing civilians. At least 200,000 have fled into refugee camps in Chad.

As immense as some of these camps in Africa are, they are dwarfed by the Kutupalong Camp near Cox’s Bazar in southeastern Bangladesh, which houses nearly 900,000 Rohingya refugees from western Myanmar. They were forcibly pushed out of Buddhist-controlled Rakhine State because they are Muslim, despite having lived in Myanmar for a century.

Bangladesh refuses to permit Rohingya to work outside the camp. Thousands have therefore fled their hastily erected flimsy dwellings for the province of Aceh, about 1,800 kilometres away by sea on the northwestern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Few voyages have been successful, with many shiploads of desperate refugees stranded at sea or refused landing by the Acehnese.

Hunger and strife in so many refugee camps have led to the theft of food supplies and human trafficking, even that of children. Anything goes in these increasingly desperate circumstances. Only with great difficulty can the residents of sprawling, cluttered, malarial and diarrheal-festering refugee camps the world over extricate themselves and their children from such domains of hopelessness. Schools in the camps function only partly; health services are mostly lacking, and the futures of so many of the inhabitants of refugee camps remain heavily, even disastrously, compromised.

And so, the mass migration of displaced persons continues the world over. Migrants from Haiti, Venezuela and even China cross Central America to seek work in the United States. Iraqis, Afghans and Eritreans risk dangerous passages across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Migrants are turned away from Europe and the U.S., just as they are rounded up if they approach Finland overland from Russia or Hungary from North Macedonia. No nation, bar Canada, welcomes immigrants with open arms.

Ending conflicts and calming insurgencies could lead refugees to return to their homes. In the absence of that unlikely result, how to better the lives of those forced to flee their homes and countries is the responsibility of wealthier and more secure countries. Contributions to the UN and private relief agencies help, but major financial flows must be directed urgently from wealthy countries to ameliorate the plight of the globe’s millions of displaced persons. They are a charge on us that must not be ignored.

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