Review 2021: why the flow of refugees in the world has increased again despite the pandemic


LONDON: For the past two years, the global refugee crisis has been eclipsed by the battle against COVID-19. But in 2021, there was a worrying increase in the number of people fleeing poverty and conflict, and everything points to the situation going to get even worse in 2022.

Anyone who followed the November media coverage of the unseemly bickering between Britain and the EU after the tragic deaths of 27 migrants in the Channel could be forgiven for thinking that the economic and social burden of the global refugee crisis in 2021 is falling. mainly in northern Europe.

Nothing could be further from the truth. As the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR frequently points out, 85 percent of the world’s 20 million or more refugees are hosted either in neighboring countries or elsewhere in developing regions.

Turkey, for example, has more refugees within its borders than any other country – over 3.5 million (or 43 per 1,000 of its own citizens). Jordan has nearly 3 million, while tiny Lebanon hosts 1.5 million, or more than 13 refugees for every 100 Lebanese.

Germany, home to a million former refugees, has been the most generous of European states. In the UK, which receives far fewer applications than Germany or France, but where politicians stoke animosity towards migrants by mistakenly suggesting that the country is invaded, there is only one tenth of that number.

Iranians made up the largest proportion of asylum seekers in the UK in the year ending September 2021.

At the end of November, 23,500 migrants had succeeded in crossing the Channel during the year 2021, i.e. double the number of migrants in 2020, while France had prevented 18,000 others from attempting to cross.

But it is clear that the treacherous Mediterranean Sea remains the center of the great exodus of the peoples of Africa and the Middle East in search of a better life. UNHCR figures show that between January and October 2021, a total of 81,647 people risked everything to try to set foot in Spain, Italy, Malta, Greece or Cyprus.

It goes without saying that the death of the 27 people, including three children, when their fragile rubber boat sank off the French coast on November 25, is a tragedy that has touched the hearts of many.


Libyan health workers recover the bodies of drowned migrants, who hoped to reach Europe by sea, after a shipwreck off Sabratha beach, some 120 kilometers west of the Libyan capital Tripoli, on November 25. 2021. (AFP)

But what media coverage has largely forgotten is that in the year to date, no less than 2,543 people had already drowned in the Mediterranean or the Eastern Atlantic while they sought refuge in Europe.

The majority, some 1,422 individuals, perished on the infamous central Mediterranean route to Italy or Malta. Overall, reports the Missing Migrants Project, deaths in the Mediterranean “have increased dramatically in the first nine months of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020”, a phenomenon it attributed in part to the relaxation of mobility restrictions imposed in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another 959 people lost their lives in 2021 attempting the increasingly popular, but deceptively dangerous, crossing from West Africa to the Spanish Canary Islands, 100 kilometers off their nearest point in Morocco or of Western Sahara.

One of the last lives lost on this route is that of a baby, found dead in one of five rubber dinghies, carrying nearly 300 people from sub-Saharan Africa, who were intercepted off the islands in early December.

Yet despite such tragedies, compassion fatigue seems to have set in.


A baby is rescued by members of the Spanish NGO Maydayterraneo aboard the rescue boat Aita Mari during the rescue of around 90 migrants in the open Mediterranean Sea off the Libyan coast on February 9, 2020 (AFP)

Such disasters would once have made headlines around the world, as in 2015 when the body of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi washed up near Bodrum in Turkey.

For a moment, the uproar created by the poignant photographs of the child’s body face down in the waves a few hundred yards from a popular tourist spot seemed to be able to tip attitudes in favor of the world’s refugees.

Since then, however, drownings have continued and a world now concerned with the COVID-19 pandemic has largely lost interest.

In the five years since Kurdi’s death in 2015, as many as 17,000 people lost their lives attempting the sea crossing to Europe. It is not known exactly how many of them were children. But given that one in five migrants is a child, it’s plausible that Kurdi was followed to his untimely death by around 3,400 of his young peers.

In the flood of statistics generated since the explosion of the refugee crisis in 2015, it is easy to lose sight of the reality of the myriad human tragedies that lie behind the numbers – the countless families and communities devastated by the loss of life. mothers, fathers and children. And it seems there is no end in sight.

With a total of 109,726 refugee arrivals in Europe at the end of November, 2021 has not been a particularly bad year – certainly compared to 2015, when more than a million people sought refuge on the northern shores of the Mediterranean.


An EU flag flies behind barbed wire in the new closed center for migrants on the Greek island of Kos on November 27, 2021 (AFP)

Indeed, the numbers have declined year over year since 2015 – dramatically in 2016, to 380,300, and then again in 2017, when “only” 178,700 came to Europe. Over the next three years, the numbers steadily declined, from 141,400 in 2018 to 95,700 in 2020.

But in 2021, for the first time in five years, the downward trend began to reverse. In the 11 months to November, some 14,000 people had already visited Europe, more than for the whole of 2020.

Experts are divided over the cause of the recent burst. Of course, people’s movements serve as a barometer of world affairs. The fact that the largest proportion of refugees in 2021 – around 25% of the total – come from Tunisia reflects the current socio-economic problems of that country.

But behind Tunisia, and accounting for over 11% of all refugees in 2021, was Bangladesh, which last year made a surprise appearance in the top 10 source countries, a list previously dominated by African countries. and the Middle East. .

Between January and the end of October this year, 6,455 refugees who began their journey in Bangladesh arrived in Europe. An unknown number died trying. In May 2021, 50 would-be immigrants drowned when their boat sank off the coast of Tunisia. Rescuers were surprised to discover that the 33 survivors, found hanging from an oil rig, were from Bangladesh.


Migrants rescued by the Tunisian National Guard during an attempt to cross the Mediterranean by boat, rest at the port of El-Ketef in Ben Guerdane, in southern Tunisia, near the border with Libya, the June 27, 2021 (AFP)

However, it is not clear whether they were in fact Bangladeshis. A disturbing explanation for the sudden appearance of Bangladesh in statistics could be the plight of the Rohingya, the persecuted Muslim minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar Rakhine State, of whom around one million were forced to seek refuge from the other side of the border in Bangladesh.

Life in the overcrowded and underfunded Bangladeshi refugee camps is becoming intolerable, and there are fears for the well-being of large numbers of Rohingya who have recently been resettled on a remote island some 50 kilometers off the coast of the Bay of Bengal.

As UNHCR reported in August, between January 2020 and June 2021, some 3,046 Rohingya, two-thirds of whom were women and children, attempted to cross the Andaman Sea and the Bay of Bengal to seek refuge. in Indonesia or Malaysia, departing from Rakhine State. or Bangladesh. More than 200 died in the attempt.

It remains to be seen exactly how the makeup of the global refugee population will change in 2022. Events in Eritrea and Ethiopia will undoubtedly contribute to the mix over the coming year, as there are indications that countries like Egypt, Iran and Syria, whose citizens together accounted for more than 20% of Mediterranean crossings in 2021, will continue to contribute more than their fair share to the global refugee crisis.

“Despite the pandemic, wars and conflicts continue to rage across the world, displacing millions of people and preventing many from returning home,” said Gillian Triggs, UNHCR’s chief international protection officer, at the launch of the Projected Global Resettlement Needs 2022 report.

“As growing humanitarian needs far outweigh solutions, we call on countries to make more resettlement places available to refugees whose lives are in danger or otherwise in danger,” Triggs continued.

UNHCR is handling the resettlement, persuading countries to join the growing army of refugees. It is a task apparently as desperate as it is noble.

Last year, of the 20.7 million known refugees worldwide, only 35,000 were resettled. The United Nations refugee agency predicts that an additional 1.47 million refugees will need resettlement in 2022.


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