Amidst the holiday travel and festivities of recent weeks, it was an easy thing to overlook. Yet among the litany of woes facing the world, one of the most intractable global issues took a troubling turn for the worse.
More than a thousand people desperate to leave the chaos of Syria, Iraq, the Horn of Africa or other areas of conflict jammed onto a pair of ships in Turkish ports. Smugglers then set sail across the Mediterranean Sea in the direction of Italy.
If we stopped here, there would be little new in the story. More than 150,000 people hoping for new life in Europe landed in Italy in 2014, a record number that dwarfed even the total during the Arab Spring. As of Sept. 30, at least 3,000 had died in the process.
However, what the crew did next was cynical, even for smugglers. Once they set them on course to run aground in Italy, they abandoned these ‘ghost ships,’ leaving some of the world’s most vulnerable people adrift on rough seas with little or no food and water.
In both cases, the refugees were rescued — one group on Dec. 30 and one on Jan. 2. — and eventually escorted to safely in Italy. But the new tactic has refocused a European debate on how to handle the flood of refugees. And it provides a window into an often-overlooked consequence of a world awash in war. The problem is much, much bigger than Europe.
By most accounts, the globe has more people fleeing war or abuse now than at any time since World War II — somewhere upwards of 50 million. And according to the U.N. official responsible, that organization has exhausted all of its resources available to deal with the problem.
For years, Italy has been Europe’s soft underbelly on refugee issues. Typically, asylum seekers have traveled there in small boats, many leaving from Libya, a relatively short distance across the southern Mediterranean. (Italy long conducted rescue missions at its own expense.)
Once in Italy, refugees have made their way across Europe, with often-predictable results. In Germany this week, protesters continued rallies that began before Christmas against what they fear is creeping Islamization brought by refugees fleeing conflicts in Muslim countries.
As usual, the story has a higher profile when it has a First-World angle. But it begins in longstanding areas of conflict such as Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan. Check out this graphic from the U.N. refugee agency that makes clear the sheer size of the problem in Somalia alone. In particular, the complex of refugee camps around Dadaab in northern Kenya is widely considered to be the largest in the world – home to more than 300,000 people. The complex has been there for more than 20 years.
Add the legacy of the Arab Spring, particularly in countries such as Libya, Iraq and Syria, and top it off with ethnic conflicts in Myanmar, the separatist war in eastern Ukraine, and those fleeing Boko Haram militants in Nigeria. And what you’ve got is a global tide of refugees that matches the entire population of Spain, Colombia or South Korea.
Unlike the people who got on those ships in Turkey, most of those who flee never cross a border. Two-thirds of them are displaced within their home countries, doubly difficult to help because they are stuck inside places that are being torn apart by war. Aid workers often risk their lives to help. In Syria, at least three — two British citizens and an American — have been killed recently by Islamic State extremists.
According to Jan Egeland, a Norwegian who has dealt for years with global conflict and refugee issues, the world’s response to the situation has actually gotten better in recent years. “Mortality rate in emergencies are down and nutrition, sanitation and education better, compared to what they were a decade or two ago,” he said in this analysis.
But that progress is at risk, according to Egeland and Antonio Guterres, the former Portuguese prime minister who serves as U.N. high commissioner for refugees.
In this interview with Britain’s Independent newspaper, Guterres was blunt: “The funding available is no longer enough, the capacity to respond is completely overstretched. If you combine these [conflicts] with the impacts of climate change, with the multiplication of natural disasters, population growth, food insecurity, water scarcity — all this is creating a situation where humanitarian needs are growing exponentially and the capacity to respond is not able to match.”
With the United States, the world’s only superpower, reluctant to pay the price to impose order, that may become the norm. In a world lacking one or a small handful of countries able to set the global agenda, regional, national or rebel leaders can be able to launch a conflict with impunity.
“Everybody, apparently, is able to trigger a conflict anywhere in the world — and those conflicts, once triggered, go on and on,” Guterres said.
Bottom line: although refugees have always been with us, the crisis has gotten much, much worse in the last few years. And it’s hard to see how things might improve in 2015.