Migration and Missing Persons

Children in the Atmah Refugee Camp on the boarders with Turkey, Christmas Day 2012. Credit: Basma

On 18 June, two days before World Refugee Day, UNHCR issued its annual Global Trends report, this year entitled “World at War”.

Speaking about the report, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said: “We have reached a moment of truth. World stability is falling apart leaving a wake of displacement on an unprecedented scale. Global powers have become either passive observers or distant players in the conflicts driving so many innocent civilians from their homes.”

According to UNHCR, the number of forcibly displaced people at the end of 2014 rose to a staggering 59.5 million, compared to 51.2 million at the end of 2013, and 37.5 million a decade ago. Guterres pointed out that more people fled their homes in 2014 than at any time since UNHCR records began.

Worldwide there were 19.5 million refugees (up from 16.7 million in 2013), 38.2 million people displaced inside their own countries (up from 33.3 million in 2013), and 1.8 million awaiting the outcome of asylum applications (against 1.2 million in 2013).

Guterres spent World Refugee Day visiting the Turkey-Syrian border. In 2014 Turkey overtook Pakistan as the biggest refugee-hosting nation in the world. It now hosts more than two million refugees.

Syria is the world’s biggest producer of internally displaced people (7.6 million) and refugees (3.88 million at the end of 2014). Afghanistan (2.59 million) and Somalia (1.1 million) are the next biggest refugee source countries.

In 2014 on average 42,500 people became refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced every day: “four times more than just four years ago,” Guterres said. He warned that “borders are closing, pushbacks are increasing, and hostility is rising. Avenues for legitimate escape are fading away,” and “the world must either shoulder collectively the burden of helping the victims of war, or risk standing by as less wealthy countries and communities – which host 86 percent of the world’s refugees – become overwhelmed and unstable.”

The UNHCR report, which noted among other things that one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum, and “if this were the population of a country, it would be the world’s 24th largest,” identified maritime migration in the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea, and in Southeast Asia as a trend that has placed large numbers of refugees in peril.

Not only have fewer refugees been able to return to their home countries – in 2014 just 126,800 were able to do so, the lowest figure for 31 years – but they have increasingly become targets of violence.

On 18 June, for example, Amnesty International warned of “a shocking spike” in violence in Mexico, which it said “has become a death trap for migrants, with vicious criminal gangs at every corner waiting for their opportunity to attack them for a few dollars.”

The ruthless abuse of refugees and migrants by people traffickers in North Africa and Southeast Europe have been highlighted in recent months, as has the apparent inability of governments to tackle the issue in a responsible or effective way.

The fault lines between rich and poor parts of the world have become dying zones for refugees and migrants. A UN report several years ago concluded that the problem of people trafficking is likely to be significantly greater than had been generally imagined. Traffickers detain and coerce their victims before during and after transportation inside countries and across borders. In such cases, the “disappearance” actually occurs before the victims begin their journey.