Around 110 million refugees have fled their countries “due to civil wars, political persecution and human rights violations,” the Associated Press recently reported, citing United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) ﬁgures for 2022. Only ﬁve years earlier, the number was 68 million. One-third sought sanctuary in other countries and most “are hosted by low- to middle-income countries in Asia and Africa, not rich countries in Europe or North America,” Filippo Grandi, the UNHCR commissioner, told reporters as he marked World Refugee Day on June 20.
Colonialism’s enduring legacy of political and economic destabilization is one driving force. Another is violent power struggles and a third is the influx of weapons that fuel those conflicts such as the current 35 in Africa. And then there is the vicious competition among developed nations for raw materials, especially in Africa.
More than 6,600 African refugees died in the ﬁve years up to 2018, most while crossing the Sahara desert en route to Europe, Voice of America reported at the time, citing the International Organization for Migration (IOM). That ﬁgure, however, was “just the tip of the iceberg.” According to IOM spokesman Joel Millman, “Starvation, dehydration, physical abuse, sickness and lack of access to medicines are causes of death frequently cited by the migrants who reported deaths on routes within Africa." But millions more refugees flee also from Central Amer-
ica, the Middle East and Asia.
The crisis could be effectively addressed by dealing with the root cause: instability. But that is not a priority of the developed nations. Sudan, with three months of bloodletting so far, is the most startling current example. Reports paint a grim picture of mass killings, devastation and rape. So, too, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the Wagner Group of Russialinked mercenaries have practically taken over the country and its mining operations.
The United Nations (U.N.) is engaged in some ways, with its judicial organ, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), holding the threat of prosecution over the heads of the tyrants. The U.N. itself is, however, hamstrung by its now obviously dated charter. It was created in 1945 as successor to the League of Nations that was founded in 1920 to maintain world peace – preventing wars between countries, not within them. Whenever U.N. intervention is needed, its highest authority, the Security council, has the ﬁnal word. However, the council is the premier undemocratic global institution. It comprises 15 countries, of whom ﬁve are permanent members – China, France, Russian, the United Kingdom and the United States – each of whom can veto any resolutions, regardless of the wishes of the other 190 U.N. members. The council has not shown that it acknowledges that the refugee crisis is just as much a danger to world peace as war between countries. In fact, it has been powerless to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both of them U.N. members.
“Nativists” see the refugee crisis as a threat – to racial supremacy – though extremist groups and parties are discovering, after gaining power, that even draconian measures are not enough to stem the human tide. In Italy, an anti-immigration party won power but, Reuters reported, “Just as King Canute failed to hold back the seas, so Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has floundered in her efforts to stop the flow of migrants to Italy since she took ofﬁce last October.”
The U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention requiring protection of refugees seems to mean little. More than 700 refugees who had paid smugglers to make the trip died in mid-June after their “rickety ﬁshing boat” sank. It happened “in
front of a Greek Coast Guard vessel,” The New York Times reported. Even though the boat was in Greece’s search and rescue territory, “you can’t intervene in international waters against a boat that is not engaged in smuggling or some other crime,” one ofﬁcial said. In the United Kingdom, the proposed Illegal Migration Bill passed by Parliament and awaiting the “royal assent” of King Charles III “is at variance with the country’s obligations under international human rights and refugee law and will have profound consequences for people in need of international protection,” the heads of the U.N.’s refugee and human rights agencies said on Tuesday. The law would “prevent most people from claiming asylum in the U.K. without permission and will deport them either to their country of origin or a third nation deemed to be safe, such as Rwanda,” Al Jazeera said. The same Rwanda where, in 1994, perhaps a million mostly Tutsis were killed in 100 days in a genocide.
Developed nations can express all the concern they want about native populations being overwhelmed but they cannot erase the reality that they owe their grand standard of living to a past rooted in slave labor and brutal colonialism. The refugee crisis is one example, to borrow a phrase from the 19th Century British poet Robert Southey, of the “chickens coming home to roost.”
The crisis is also expected to worsen because developed countries have polluted the planet, setting in motion climate change that is already creating another kind of refugees. The “devastating reality” of the impact of global warming is “forcing people to flee and making life more precarious for people already uprooted from their homes,” the UNHCR reported.
“We see pushbacks. We see tougher and tougher immigration or refugee admission rules. We see in many countries the criminalization of immigrants and refugees, blaming them for everything that has happened,” the UNHRC’s Grandi said. That, he added, is “quite an indictment on the state of the world.”
The pushback is taking place also in the U.S.. In Texas, whose governor, Greg Abbott, is married to the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, state border ofﬁcers were “ordered to push small children and nursing babies back into the Rio Grande and have been told
not to give water to asylum seekers even in extreme heat,” HuffPost reported, quoting a story in the San Antonio Express-News that cited a July 3 email from a Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) trooper.
That trooper, whom news outlets identiﬁed as Nicholas Wingate, a DPS medic, also complained about the injuries caused by razor wire that the state has strung along the border and buoys deployed in the Rio Grande. “In one instance, a 19-year-old woman ‘in obvious pain’ was found stuck in the wire before she was cut free. Medical ofﬁcials determined she was pregnant and having a miscarriage. At another point, troopers treated a man with a ‘signiﬁcant laceration’ on his leg that he sustained while trying to free his child from a ‘trap in the water’ covered in razor wire,” HuffPost reported.
That accusation led the Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau to point out: “Gov. Ron DeSantis has spent millions of dollars this year to support Texas in deterring migrants from entering the country through its border security initiative. Now, some of those efforts are coming under scrutiny.”
Still, the lesson of the refugee crisis is that the world is more than ever inter-connected and at least one young American sees the inter-connectedness. Amanda Gorman, former poet laureate who read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration, wrote this in another work, “In This Place (An American Lyric),” as she saluted her “California friend Rosa":
“How could this not be her city
our American lyric to write—
a poem by the people, the poor,
the Protestant, the Muslim, the Jew,
the native, the immigrant,
the black, the brown, the blind, the
the undocumented and undeterred,
the woman, the man, the nonbinary,
the white, the trans,
the ally to all of the above
But, then, these are the times when, because one parent complained, the Bob Graham Education Center in Miami Lakes has restricted access to Gorman’s inaugural poem.