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Doug Saunders

Doug Saunders


The world is not awash in refugees: Open the gates Add to ...

The word “refugee,” in its modern sense of people fleeing their homes to escape violence, is now exactly 100 years old. It was first used this way in 1914 to describe the hundreds of thousands of Flemish who fled westward to escape the German onslaught. Three years later, the first High Commissioner for Refugees was created to deal with the 1.5 million Russians who fled the revolution. Then it was applied to the million Armenians and 1.5 million Greeks fleeing Turkey.

The largest refugee crisis in history, and the one that made the refugee a subject of international law, took place in the 1940s, when more than 40 million people found themselves homeless, destitute and fleeing into unknown lands. Millions were forced to beg, steal, prostitute themselves and endure endless humiliation in squalid encampments. Two years after the war’s end, many were still living in camps, and only a massive international intervention (and in some countries, a lengthy military occupation) ended their time of refuge – although many settled in their countries of refuge.

In other words, the refugee flood is, in its origins and its greatest extremes, a European phenomenon. We Westerners have been refugees much more than we have been refugee’d upon. Those Western refugees (and the millions more who followed, in crises such as the 1956 Hungarian uprising) faced the same ugly political reaction that we see in refugee crises.

Today we face the Syrian crisis. It is neither the largest nor the most unmanageable refugee flood of the postwar era, but it has arrived at a bad moment: first, because we have by now forgotten our own history as refugees; second, because an ugly politics of intolerance is influencing many Western governments; and third, because there is an unfortunate public belief that refugee tides are larger and more permanent than they really are.

More than three million have fled Syria. About 1.1 million are camped out in Lebanon, whose population is only 4.5 million; an estimated 1.6 million are in Turkey, which has spent $4-billion in dealing with them. Jordan is spending 2 per cent of its GDP on settlement of Syrian refugees in city-sized camps. In comparison, Germany, with 80 million people, has taken in 70,000 Syrians since 2012, making it the most generous Western country. Canada has pledged to harbour 1,300 Syrians over two years.

On Tuesday, the governments of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey jointly urged Western countries to accept more. Most countries could easily do so. It would take a load off those much more burdened countries, and help reduce the risk of more instability in the Middle East. Canada is taking fewer refugees than it ever has, at a time when its economy needs people.

First, we need to dispel the popular belief that the world is permanently awash in refugees, and the belief that to open the gates for one crisis is to be overrun for good.

For most of the past 20 years, international refugee numbers have been very low. In 2004, registered refugees reached a record low of 8.4 million people worldwide – and more than half of those were Palestinians; while legally classified as refugees, their plight has been so long-lasting and their location so permanent that they almost need a status of their own.

The Libyan and then Syrian crises have changed that: Between 2006 and 2013, the number of asylum-seekers entering Europe more than doubled, from 200,000 to 450,000. That doesn’t compare to the 1.2 million non-refugee immigrants who enter the EU, but it’s still enough to worry people – especially since the European Union lacks a well-co-ordinated system for settling refugees across its territory (or for deporting those who don’t qualify).

That, however, is not so many people in a continent of 500 million. The 2014 flood dwindles in comparison to the much larger refugee crisis of the early 1990s, when 700,000 asylum-seekers entered the European Union to flee the wars of the former Yugoslavia: an equally traumatized population from wars that seemed doomed to last forever.

That caused a much larger political crisis. Germany actually changed its constitution, written when much of its population consisted of refugees, so that it would no longer automatically accept asylum-seekers.

Yet those refugees were sheltered, and found safety. Most of them returned once that long conflict was over; a few became well-integrated members of their communities. The wave passed.

We need to remember that taking in refugees is not just a responsibility but a way to return stability to the world – and that it is neither permanent nor overwhelming. And how recently it was that the worst refugee tidal waves emerged from Western shores.

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