It’s time we addressed the unequal and unsustainable global distribution of refugees

15 June 2017

With an estimated 65.3 million refugees worldwide, it is time we addressed the fact that while the poorest countries are taking in more than their fair share, developed countries continue to fight against sheltering more refugees.

The Australian and Cambodian governments made a controversial agreement in 2014 on the resettlement of refugees. Cambodia, a third world country with a poor human rights record, was to bear the responsibility of sheltering refugees from Australia in exchange for AU $55.5m. This agreement exemplifies the global problem of developed countries not supporting a more equal distribution of refugees and paying to keep them “over there”.

A global problem

Globally, there are estimated to be 65.3 million refugees yet the numbers tell us that the distribution of refugees is far from equal. Examples such as the Australian-Cambodian agreement and the UK government’s handling of bringing in child refugees from Calais form part of a wider problem of developed countries not taking their fair share. While the media has often portrayed that countries like the UK are taking in too many refugees, the reality is in stark contrast to this. Ten countries shelter more than half of the world’s refugees and those countries make up 2.5% of global GDP, including countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Ethiopia. With the Syrian refugee crisis, the UK had resettled 4414 refugees by the end of 2016 according to Oxfam, while Jordan, with a population almost 10 times smaller than the UK and just 1.2% of its GDP, hosts closer to 655,000.

An unsustainable system

While it can be expected that refugee movement leads to unequal geographic distribution, with refugees often fleeing their homes to neighbouring states, the support of other nations to ensure host countries aren’t overwhelmed is vital. Amnesty International has been critical of countries using aid to keep the refugees “over there” instead of welcoming the idea of opening their own borders. Financial support alone cannot be the solution when countries such as Lebanon are so overwhelmed with the number of refugees, it is impossible for them to ensure that the refugee population have safe living conditions with access to basic services like healthcare and education.

Further, even if financial aid alone could be effective, Amnesty has been critical of the idea that countries are willing to provide sufficient amounts of aid in the first place. It found that as of mid-2016, only 48% of what was required to support refugees from Syria had actually been pledged by countries.

The humanity of it all

Beyond the numbers, it is individuals that are suffering as a consequence of countries not supporting a global approach to taking in refugees. Of the few refugees that ended up travelling to Cambodia from Australia, all chose to return to their own countries after suffering poor living standards and a lack of integration. In Libyan refugee camps, individuals are being detained indefinitely without access to the most basic of human rights, not knowing what lies in their future. As countries hesitate in taking action to help the refugee crisis, it is the refugees that will suffer the consequences.

As the problem continues, it is not clear that developed countries are willing to take action to equalise the distribution of refugees. The UN General Assembly held a summit on 19 September 2016 where it was criticised for concluding that it would help tackle the problem without proposing a solid plan of action. It is essential that discussions about supporting refugees continue beyond Refugee Week and that we continue to put pressure on our own government to take its fair share.

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