Ignoring the roots of Europe’s refugee influx

by Alexandra Bilak, director, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)
Monday, 20 June 2016 08:08 GMT

A migrant child from Afghanistan washes its face at a makeshift camp at the Serbian-Hungarian border near the village of Horgos, Serbia, June 14, 2016. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

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The current refugee influx in Europe is a symptom of the failure to protect and assist displaced people in their own country

Waves lap gently against a tiny, lifeless body on a deserted beach. Families run from clouds of teargas at a border crossing. A father breaks down in tears as he carries his child ashore. These iconic images of Europe’s refugee influx, its largest since World War II, have shaken us to our core and brought fragments of distant chaos to our borders, forcing us to bear witness.

But while we wring our hands about how to chip away at the tip of the iceberg, the true scale of the phenomenon and its human implications lurk unaddressed beneath the surface. World Refugee Day offers us the opportunity to honour those who flee their countries in search of safety by looking at their exodus through a wider lens. Many if not most refugees did not leave their country at the first sign of war, but instead fled first inside their nation’s borders, by choice or lack of it, hoping for peace or aid that never came.

Today, for every 10 refugees there are almost 20 internally displaced people (IDPs) who fled similar violence but did not or could not cross an international border. By the end of 2015, there were more than 40.8 million IDPs worldwide, uprooted by conflict and violence across 28 countries. Five countries - Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Ukraine - featured in two solemn lists: the ten countries with most new internal displacement during the year, and the ten countries of origin for those seeking asylum in Europe.

There are striking similarities across the five countries, most notably that the push factors for displacement are usually the same. This has far-reaching implications not only for humanitarians, but also for a much broader range of stakeholders working to mitigate ever larger movements of refugees. Only by understanding the roots of the global refugee crisis, which often emanates from internal displacement, can we start to address its causes head-on instead of scurrying to treat its symptoms. 

Broadly speaking, threats to physical security are the top push factor. This should come as no surprise. The main reason people flee their homes during conflict is to escape its direct effects on their personal safety. Perhaps the most emblematic example is Syria, where the perpetual targeting of civilians, flagrant attacks on health facilities and schools, and indiscriminate onslaughts have forced millions of men, women and children to scramble for refuge elsewhere in the country or further afield.

We fail these families when we pin our hopes on humanitarian responses alone, rather than recognising that displacement is most often a political issue. Conflicts do not happen in a political vacuum. Syria’s civil war is now in its sixth year, and four of the five permanent UN Security Council members are actively engaged in the hostilities. The country’s displacement crisis is the result of violations of international humanitarian law and political blockages that prevent adequate protection and assistance reaching IDPs, particularly the hundreds of thousands trapped in besieged areas.

The second most common reason IDPs report for leaving their homes is a lack of livelihood or income, a priority even in places where violence is ongoing. A recent survey of families preparing to flee Iraq found that 33 per cent had decided to do so for lack of income, 29 per cent because of the high cost of living and 11 per cent for lack of access to basic services. This again highlights the fact that displacement is far more than a humanitarian challenge. It raises issues of concern to a much broader range of responders, notably development actors.

Across all displacement crises rings a near universal truth: people typically do not want to leave their country, but they are left with no choice but to do so because they’re not getting the help they need to survive at home. Put another way, the current refugee influx in Europe is a symptom of the failure to protect and assist IDPs in their own country.

As the former UN high commissioner for refugees Sadako Ogata once famously said: “There are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems.” If the causes of displacement are broadly political, and the second most common push factor hinges upon the impacts of violence on development gains, where indeed does that leave humanitarian work? Can we really expect overstretched humanitarians, in addition to their essential work in saving lives, to prevent displacement in the first place?

These are the questions we should be asking ourselves when we see people risking their own and their children’s lives to cross the Mediterranean. In September, the UN General Assembly will hold a high-level plenary session addressing large movements of migrants and refugees. Despite several rounds of negotiations, the summit report dedicates only a brief, token section to internal displacement. This is a missed opportunity, and only reinforces our failure to get to the root of the global refugee crisis.

Alexandra Bilak, director, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC)