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Road to nowhere: the global refugee crisis

Several countries have agreed to accept a larger number of refugees but many have rejected them as well. Photograph: (Others)

WION Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Sep 19, 2016, 10.31 AM (IST)

The line-ups in the dispensary were snaking through the camp. Kids were screaming and playing in the dirt. Some queued up outside the tents to collect food supplies; others stood in a file to get water. These people had gathered there to get basic amenities because they had no way to buy them or earn them. There were millions who had been displaced by the fighting in Afghanistan. We stood there looking at the size of this calamity and wondered how this would ever get resolved. This was at the Jalozai camp near Peshawar in Pakistan in 2002.

Almost a decade later, I went back to another camp near Jalozai. By then, Jalozai had shut down. This camp mostly had internally displaced people from Waziristan, living under plastic sheets in what they called their homes. Some of them who were more entrepreneurial had moved out. Some found jobs and some had set-up businesses starting afresh in their new country.

Unimaginable size of refugees
Over the past decades, the number of refugees has grown acutely. Every minute, 24 people are displaced in this world. Somebody loses one's home, community and way of life. Official figures tell that 98,400 among the displaced population are unaccompanied or are children who have been separated from their families. 

Leaving behind one’s home and security are traumatic enough but not having a friend, parent or a relative in the journey to unknown places is scary. The challenge for the children is even more as many get sexually abused. They are scarred for the rest of their lives.

In 2015, one in every 113 people were displaced globally from their homes because of conflict and persecution. Three countries — Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia — produce half of the world’s refugees. The most startling fact is that about 86 per cent of the world’s refugees live in developing countries. In the developing world, where the majority of its own citizens don’t have access to basic amenities like clean drinking water, houses and jobs, we can imagine what the living conditions of the refugees would be.

Psychological impact of being a refugee
The relationship between the governed and the government is a fascinating one. Whether democracy or dictatorship, the governed put trust in their government. They believe that this trust would give them security and opportunity to lead a normal life with their own people. Being labeled a migrant or a refugee puts one's statehood and identity always in question. There are more than 30,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees in one of the refugee camps in Delhi. While talking to them, one realises that they are always questioning their identity. They feel that they belong nowhere. On the one hand, they are being persecuted in their homeland. On the other hand in their host country, they don’t feel a sense of belonging.

Someone who becomes a refugee doesn’t want to stay in that condition; they are always vulnerable in a foreign land. Cultural integration in the host country is not easy. Even if they stay in their host countries for generations and finally manage to carve out a new life in the new land, there is always the fear of repatriation. After the 1980 war between the Soviet Union and Afghanistan, several Afghans came to Pakistan as refugees. Over the years, they built their life, home and community in Pakistan. But, now the government of Pakistan is repatriating them. They have been given a deadline till the end of this year to return. Even if some want to stay back, they can’t as they suffer harassment at the hands of Pakistani Police.

The refugees have to go through deep psychological distress. They are at risk of developing mental health problems due to their traumatic experiences. They are uprooted from their habitat and face adjustment difficulties in the new country, such as language, occupational problems, and cultural conflict. Uprooting creates culture shock resulting in psychological and mental stress, thus impacting an individual well-being.

However, studies have shown that much of the depression and anxiety of refugees can be alleviated if they can keep family ties somewhat intact and can develop social networks with others from their culture. The stress does not end with the current refugees. It passes onto the children as well, even if they are born into the new environment. Every boy and girl have aspirations and expectations. However, the conditions in refugee camps are so dismal that there is hardly any scope for receiving education, which aggravates the psychological distress in children.

It’s a permanent crisis
Several countries have agreed to accept a larger number of refugees but many have rejected them as well. Thirty-one US states have rejected the idea of accepting refugees. But we have to continuously remind ourselves that we shouldn’t be creating conditions that will push more people out of their homes and countries. Instead, there should be a concerted effort to end the turmoil. Meanwhile, let’s make these populations feel at home.

Sometimes, circumstances are such that people are relieved to leave their native places and move to new ones. Muthi camp that I visited in Jammu of Kashmiri in 2007-2008, people were relieved to escape from Kashmir where their women were being gang raped by their Muslims neighbours right in front of their eyes. Traumatised by such events, they preferred to leave and never return. They have established new homes around the world. So sometimes there may not be a choice but to leave and become a refugee or just create a new home in some place else. The idea should be to help create the circumstance for populations to find safe havens. 

We often come across the term ‘conflict management’ in writings and articles. Lately, it seems that the word is almost being over-used. Conflicts can be managed for decades but they don’t end the war. What is needed is conflict resolution. We need to resolve and end the conflicts so that people are no longer displaced.


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