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DUBAI: They have become a sign of our times: long queues of people in distress at border checkpoints, carrying what few possessions they could seize before hastily abandoning their homes and livelihoods . Hunger eats away at their dignity as their eyes beg for mercy, but they must do exactly as impassive border guards tasked with keeping order tell them to do.
Nearly seven years after a record number of refugee and migrant arrivals sparked a crisis in the European Union, the spectacle of a massive flight of people out of Ukraine has highlighted the global refugee crisis . It has also prompted accusations of double standards and racial discrimination in the European embrace of war-displaced civilians.
Since February 24, more than 4.1 million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries, producing the sixth-largest flow of refugees in the past 60-plus years, according to an analysis of UN data by the Pew Research Center. .
These Ukrainians, hosted by Poland, Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, Russia and Belarus, are part of a human tide made up of more than 10 million people, representing more than a quarter of the pre-war Ukrainian population, believed to have fled their homes.
UN aid agencies are scrambling to find funds and resources to house, feed and treat injured and traumatized Ukrainian refugees, while hoping a peace deal can be reached quickly to allow them to return home. them safely.
But even the greatest refugee crises of modern times cannot obscure the staggering scale of the problem on a global level. According to the UN, at least 84 million people, nearly half of whom are children, are currently displaced around the world.
If the war in Ukraine drags on without a clear conclusion, civilians forced from their homes by the fighting risk becoming a mere statistic, an insignificant fraction of the total number of refugees worldwide who cannot return home. , in many cases even decades later.
These victims of conflict are residents of refugee camps in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, South America and Southern Europe, unable to return home or move to a new country. What were originally intended as temporary shelters over time became permanent settlements, absorbed by host communities.
In the Middle East and Central Asia, little progress has been made in the return or resettlement of the millions of people who fled the wave of major conflicts over the past 20 years.
The US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, sparked a deadly Sunni insurgency and sectarian war in 2014 that contributed to the rise of Daesh. The resulting violence and insecurity have forced millions of Iraqis — ethnic Arabs, Kurds and other minorities — from their homes.
More than 260,000 people fled Iraq and another 3 million were internally displaced during this period. Many of those who remained inside the country settled in camps or informal settlements in urban areas of the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that more than 4.1 million Iraqis, around 15% of the country’s post-war population, still need some form of protection or of humanitarian aid, years after the territorial defeat of Daesh at the end of 2017.
The conflict has spread to neighboring Syria, where an uprising against Bashar al-Assad’s regime had already caused an exodus of civilians to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, three countries where most of them still find today.
Since 2011, more than half of the 22 million inhabitants of pre-war Syria have faced forced displacement, many more than once. An estimated 6.7 million Syrians remain internally displaced.
Large numbers have sought refuge in Idlib, a volatile and rebellious corner of the northwest that is subject to routine Russian rule and bombardment.
Hajj Hassan, from Syria’s Homs region, was first displaced in 2012 and then again in 2016. The 62-year-old has since been in Idlib. “We lost everything in 2012,” he told Arab News.
“Not a single building was left standing. I moved again and the bombardment followed. I now live in the most miserable place in the world. I am a refugee in my own country.
Syrian children have borne the brunt of displacement, being exposed to violence, shock, trauma, hunger and harsh weather conditions. Many were forced to grow up in exile, often separated from their families, where they faced violence, forced early marriages, recruitment by armed groups, exploitation and psychological distress.
Since the collapse of the internationally recognized government in Kabul in August last year, Afghanistan has faced humanitarian challenges, compounded by reduced foreign aid, international trade and the nature of Taliban governance.
Afghans have been victims of civil wars, insurgencies, natural disasters, poverty and food insecurity over the past 40 years, and today form one of the largest refugee populations in the world, with at least 2.5 million registered by the UN, most in neighboring Iran and Pakistan.
When humanitarian crises in Yemen, Myanmar and countries in North Africa are added to the mix, the number of refugees seems too large for a war-weary world and an overwhelmed NGO community to handle.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, aid agencies are struggling to secure donor funding to support projects in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. “Compassion fatigue” threatens the viability of health and education programs in the three countries, according to experienced aid workers.
“Now, with Ukraine, the focus will be even less on Yemen than before. Maybe it’s time to do something else,” a Middle East-based aid worker told Arab news. can’t take the crushing blow of walking away when the money runs out, so I might as well go first.”
Common to the war in Ukraine and recent conflicts in the Middle East is the major role played by neighboring countries in the humanitarian effort.
Just like countries bordering Syria, which have taken in millions of refugees over the past decade, countries in Eastern Europe which have accepted that displaced Ukrainians are likely to need outside help to cope to increased population pressure, especially if the invasion turns into a long and grueling war.
Lebanon currently hosts around 850,000 of the Syrians turned into refugees by the civil war, Jordan another 600,000 and Turkey more than 3 million. But burdened by their own socio-economic problems and budgetary difficulties, these countries have shown a growing reluctance to shoulder the burden while trying to push some refugees back to Syria.
Many of those who returned home to the war-torn country soon joined the national army or shuffled off to mafia-like groups for protection.
While the influx of Ukrainians has prompted an outpouring of generosity from European governments, the continent’s unified welcome stands in stark contrast to the lukewarm welcome given to Syrian refugees, not to mention the outright hostility towards the migrants trying to cross the Belarus-Poland border late last year.
Indeed, it seems hard to believe that just a few months ago, Poland began building a $380 million wall along its border with Belarus to block thousands of non-European refugees seeking asylum. asylum in the EU.
“The situation of non-Ukrainian refugees at the borders, especially at the moment, is horrific. It’s appalling to watch,” Nadine Kheshen, a Lebanon-based human rights lawyer, told Arab News.
“On the one hand, it’s nice to see the Ukrainians welcomed with open arms. On the other hand, it is heartbreaking to see how Syrian, Afghan, Kurdish, Iraqi and other refugees are treated at the Polish border.
Kheshen’s opinion is echoed by Nadim Houry, executive director of the Paris-based think tank Arab Reform Initiative. “There is definitely a sort of double standard in the way refugees are treated,” he told Arab News. “I would say, especially vis-à-vis the Afghan refugees in Europe, this should be condemned. People fleeing violence should be welcome.
Although the needs of refugees are the same regardless of their origin, it seems that the type of conflict they are fleeing may well determine how long they are displaced or if they can return at all.
“There is a major difference between Ukraine and Syria, for example,” Houry said. “In the case of Ukraine, people are fleeing an external aggressor. The moment the external aggressor stops, people will feel safe to step back. However, in Syria, people were fleeing the Syrian regime for the most part.
“The same thing happened between Israel and Lebanon in 2006. You had massive displacement, but once the Israelis stopped, the Lebanese went back to their cities.
Although the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have been quick to welcome the millions of Ukrainians arriving on their soil, there are fears that the new arrivals will eventually find themselves relegated to a life of permanent refugees. Many could possibly stay longer than their welcome.
“We are now seeing high levels of support and welcome from neighboring countries and high levels of solidarity,” Houry told Arab News. “However, some countries, such as Moldova and Poland, will need support so as not to be strained.
“People tend to forget the start of the conflict in Syria. Syrian refugees were generally well received. But then that changed as the conflict raged.
So far, Europe’s show of solidarity with people fleeing the war in Ukraine has been impressive. But given that the invasion is only entering its fifth week, this may just be the beginning.