OPINION: Together we can confront the scourge of rising displacement

Wednesday, 19 June 2019 05:00 GMT

Venezuelan migrant Oscar Herrera holds his two-months old daughter Jocsiany next to his sons, after spending the night at the Ecuadorian Peruvian border service center, in the outskirts of Tumbes, Peru June 15, 2019. Picture taken June 15, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In 2018, almost 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced, double that of 20 years ago

Rossella Pagliuchi-Lor is UNHCR's Representative to the United Kingdom.

In recent days, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has been sending extra teams to the Peru-Ecuador border to help manage the unprecedented numbers of Venezuelan refugees and migrants arriving.

Peru’s announcement of new visa requirements for Venezuelans triggered a surge in arrivals. Some had walked 30-40 days to find sanctuary, braving malnutrition, dehydration or medical problems. More children are arriving daily.

The pace of the exodus from Venezuela has been staggering. From 695,000 at the end of 2015, the number of refugees and migrants skyrocketed over 4 million by mid-2019. Since November alone, one million have left.

Today (June 19) UNHCR releases its annual Global Trends Report, updating the data on refugees and those in similar situations, as well as key themes of our work.

As in recent years, the trend is rising. In 2018, almost 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced, 2.3 million more than a year ago and double that of 20 years ago. Breaking down that sobering global figure, there were almost 26 million refugees -- the most ever reported -- 3.5 million asylum seekers and 41.3 million people displaced inside their borders. Even the figure of 70.8 million is conservative. For example, of the 4 million Venezuelans, only close to 500,000 have formally applied for asylum.

The UNHCR report also throws out some less known facts about refugees. For example, most (61%) live in towns and cities rather than rural areas or camps. Three quarters stay next-door to their countries of origin, which are overwhelmingly poor countries. And nearly four in five have been refugees for at least five years.

Why have these numbers climbed so much in recent years? There’s no simple answer. States and other political groups seem to have become worse at fostering and maintaining peace. Wherever you are in the world, you won’t need to look far to find tension or conflict. That means more innocent people are forced to seek safety from conflict or persecution. Climate change and environmental degradation have also been driving tensions, and therefore displacement.

In addition, the international community has, until now, come up short in the quest for solutions to the refugee ‘crisis.’ Part of this comes from the deficit in policy, solidarity and funding. Part also lies in attitudes and discourse. If we allow toxic political and social narratives to take root -- demonising newcomers, refugees and migrants as outsiders to be kept at bay – then we will never create the conditions for peaceful, equal and prosperous societies, with protections and justice for all.

International solidarity is not a zero-sum game, whereby support or help for refugees means that locals or hosts will lose. Refugees want to succeed, but they also acknowledge the debt that they owe their hosts, and they want to repay it, by working hard and contributing to their new societies.

While the language around refugees and migrants is often toxic, there are reasons to be optimistic. For example, we are witnessing an outpouring of generosity and solidarity, especially by communities and groups hosting refugees.  Here in the UK and beyond, schemes like community sponsorship allow individuals to come together and help refugees in a tangible way.  And across the UK, we are currently marking and celebrating the contribution of refugees and those who support them via Refugee Week, a nationwide programme of arts, cultural and educational events. Indeed, just this week there was more good news here. The Home Office said on Monday that the UK would maintain its commitment to welcome 5,000-6,000 refugees through resettlement in 2020 to 2021.

That also represents a positive start for the Global Compact on Refugees, a non-binding international blueprint for governments, international organizations and other actors including the private sector to ensure that host communities obtain the support they need, and allow refugees to lead productive and independent lives in exile, or return home in dignity once it is safe to do so.

The Compact, agreed in December, also calls on States to offer more resettlement places, through existing programmes or establishing new ones. A Global Refugee Forum will be held in December -- a critical first test for the international community, 12 months after the accord was signed.

Every week of the year – and especially during Refugee Week -- UNHCR tries to gather the stories of those who help refugees – like Carmen Carcelén in El Juncal, Ecuador, who hosts those fleeing Venezuela. She offers a shower, food and a bed to up to 70 people a night. “I may not have money,” she says, “But I have a heart for those who come.”

That is exactly the sprit that can help solve this growing global problem, and the kind of attitude that can help make the Compact a real success.