Are some refugees more equal than others?

By Yonas Abiye


This year, the world has experienced a series of calamitous events related to terrorism, wars, and instabilities. By the same token, a new report from the UN revealed that there are now more refugees on Earth than ever before in human history.


In that regard, on June 20—a day dedicated to refugees—the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that by the end of last year 65.3 million people—equal to almost 65 percent of Ethiopia’s population—had been forced from their homes by poverty, war or persecution.


The new data shows that the number of refugees soared to an all-time high and the burden of sheltering them is overwhelmingly shouldered by poorer nations.


The number of people left homeless by war and conflict jumped by nearly six million last year, crossing the 60-million threshold for the first time, according to the latest report from the UNHCR.


“2016 is proving to be an unprecedented year for UNHCR, in many ways. Not for decades have we seen forced displacement of such complexity and scale, such divisive political rhetoric on asylum and migration issues, and refugee stories so prominent in the media,” Clementine Nkweta Salami, UNHCR Representative to Ethiopia, said on Monday on the occasion of celebrating World Refugees Day held in Tsore—a refugees camp for South Sudanese nationals in the Benishangul Gumuz Regional State.


She indicated that forced displacement affects a growing portion of humanity while one of every 113 people in the world is now a refugee, asylum seeker or internally displaced.


“24 people are displaced every minute. Forced displacement has doubled in less than 20 years,” she said, adding that humanitarian funding is in crisis and countries are finding it harder to work together.


Much of the world is increasingly responding with xenophobia, divisive rhetoric, closed borders and political paralysis, UNHCR chief, Filippo Grandi, said in a statement to mark World Refugees Day.


Grandi did not give examples but the political climate this year has been dominated by populists such as Donald Trump and European nationalists who want to tighten borders and restrict the flow of migrants—including refugees—from poorer countries, especially Muslim nations. Thursday’s referendum on Brexit has helped fuel tensions over migration in Britain.

Yet, while the attention of politicians and the media is fixated on refugees reaching Europe and North America, 86 percent of refugees are still hosted by poor and developing countries, which are at times close to war zones or conflict sites, the UNHCR said on Monday. More than half of the refugees are children, it said.


Turkey was once again the world’s biggest host country last year, taking in 2.5 million refugees, most of them from Syria. Pakistan was next with 1.6 million people, while Lebanon hosted more refugees compared with its population than any other country: 1.1 million people—or 183 refugees for every 1,000 inhabitants. Next comes Iran (979,400), Ethiopia (737,979), Jordan (664,100), Kenya (553,912), Uganda (477,187), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (383,100) and Chad (369,540).


These figures have never been so high since the UNHCR was established in 1950.


Most affected, however, was the African continent. In late 2015, over 2.5 million people in Africa were either displaced or forced to flee to other countries. This figure increased by 1.5 million from 2014.


Five of the 10 biggest hosts were sub-Saharan African countries. Measured by dollar of GDP on a per-capita basis, the heaviest burden is shouldered by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Uganda and Kenya.


While forced displacement has been rising since the mid-1990s, the trend has accelerated over the past five years, the UNHCR said. It cited three main reasons: the longer persistence of refugee numbers in conflict zones such as Somalia and Afghanistan; a declining rate of offering asylum or other solutions; and the emergence of dramatic new refugee crises in countries such as Syria, South Sudan, Ukraine, Burundi, Yemen, Central African Republic and many others.


Although much of the focus is on events in the Middle East, the report is a reminder that crises in sub-Saharan Africa account for considerable suffering.


Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad hosted 2.5 million refugees, mainly from conflicts in Somalia, Sudan and the Central African Republic.


Meanwhile, the UNHCR report cited Canada as one of the most generous countries on refugee settlement. Canada accepted 20,000 refugees for resettlement last year—the second-largest number in the world, behind only the United States, which accepted 66,500.


Since the last two years, Ethiopia has been the top refugee hosting country in Africa after it overtook Kenya due to hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese arriving in the country.


The total refugee population has reached 737,979, raising concerns that its capacity to help displaced people may be overstretched.


“Alongside negative developments, including disturbing levels of xenophobia in some regions, we have also witnessed a continuation of high levels of generosity from host countries such as Ethiopia,” Salami said. “Despite hosting the highest number of refugees in Africa and one of the highest in the world, Ethiopia continues to maintain its open-door policy towards refugees,” she said.


Civil war in neighboring South Sudan is “the main factor” behind Ethiopia’s soaring refugee population, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said. Over 285,657 South Sudanese have arrived in Ethiopia since conflict erupted, bringing the total number in the country to over 737,979.


East Africa’s refugee infrastructure has been heavily strained by fighting in South Sudan, which has driven nearly half a million people into camps around the region, with most settling in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Sudan, according to the UNHCR. Up to one million South Sudanese people might have been displaced in neighboring countries by the end of this year, it said.


Close proximity to South Sudan makes Ethiopia’s western region accessible for many refugees particularly Gambella and Benishangul Gumuz regional states hosting 273,633 and 50,347 refugees, respectively.


In addition to refugees from South Sudan, Ethiopia has seen an increasing number of refugees coming from Eritrea, as people flee a strictly enforced national service. Activists also bemoan a harsh government crackdown on free speech.


Eritrea’s escalating refugee crisis has resulted in almost 155,000 people seeking refuge in Ethiopia. Both crises are straining Ethiopia’s ability to support refugee populations.


Although decades-long conflict in Somalia has driven about 251,537 refugees across the border into Ethiopia since 1991, the number of Somali arrivals has declined in recent months, the UNHCR said.


“On this World Refugee Day, I would like to renew my appreciation and respect to the people and government of Ethiopia for their enduring generosity. More so at this particular time when more than 10 million Ethiopians are themselves in urgent need of emergency assistance and when international support is not at its best,” she said.


She also appealed to the international community to help Ethiopia and support the many people who are victims of the El Niño-induced drought as well as the more than seven hundred thousand refugees under the care of the government of Ethiopia.


“As we mark World Refugee Day today, Ethiopia is hosting 738,000 refugees mainly from South Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan with more arriving every single day. A staggering 57.2 percent of these are children, who should be in schools rather than refugee camps. Unfortunately, a good number of these children are out of school because we do not have the resources to build schools that can accommodate all school-age refugee children,” Salami said


While delivering a remark, Zeinu Jemal, Deputy Director of Administration for Refugee and Returnees Affairs ARRA said that this year’s theme calls for more empathy towards the cause of refugee lives and increased attention to fulfill their unmet needs. “They want food, shelter and health services. They want also to learn and send their children to school,” he said.


UNHCR officials, diplomats, representatives of donors and multilateral organization visited Tsore camp where several shortcomings were showcased highlighting major shortages refugees suffer from. Among them are lack of education materials and basic facilities for children.

Having visited the camp and speaking with refugees, the African Union Commission (AUC) Commissioner for Political Affairs, Aysha L. Abdullahi (PhD) urged the world to give fair attention for the refugees in Ethiopia and the entire refugees in the continent.


Aysha has also pledged USD 20,000 on behalf of the AU to help equip the existing small school facility inside the Tsore Refugee Camp.


Zeinu on his part highlighted the plights of refugees saying: “In a world where public anxieties are becoming the norm, refugees are being caught in a quagmire of being misunderstood resulting in being marginalized and their rights abused, neglected and despised. This is becoming a daily phenomenon in many parts of the world where refugees are new faces of a hosting nation.”


He, however, noted that this story is different here. “The situation is quite different despite the little resources they have. Host communities in Ethiopia have developed and inculcated in their minds the very essence of World Refugees Day. They stand in solidarity with refugees,” he said.


However, the deputy director did not shy away from revealing his fear of resource limitation that the refugees would face in a few months unless the international community responds immediately.


“Despite the increases in refugees figure, the Ethiopian Program, unlike the previous year, will suffer from lack of financial resources for the 2016/17 budget year,” he said.