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Stephanie Nebehay: Price of politics
June 23, 2014
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More than 50 million people were forcibly uprooted worldwide at the end of last year, the highest level since after World War Two, as people fled crises from Syria to South Sudan, the UN refugee agency noted.

Half are children, many of them caught up in conflicts or persecution that world powers have been unable to prevent or end, UNHCR said in its annual Global Trends report.

“We are really facing a quantum leap, an enormous increase of forced displacement in our world,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres told a news briefing.

The overall figure of 51.2 million displaced people soared by six million from a year earlier. They included 16.7 million refugees and 33.3 million displaced within their homelands, and 1.2 million asylum seekers whose applications were pending.

It isn’t child’s play

Over 9,000 child refugees and immigrants have arrived in Italy by boat so far this year, with over a third travelling alone and at risk, Save the Children said. Of the over 58,000 people who have made the perilous journey from the coast of North Africa across the Mediterranean, 3,160 were unaccompanied minors, the organisation said in a report titled “From Syria to Europe, fleeing the war.”

The majority of the accompanied minors — many of whom were under five years old — were Syrian, and most were landing in Italy after long and dangerous journeys though Libya, where they are exposed to “persecution, theft, threats and violence.” Most Syrian families arriving “are middle class professionals, businessmen, shopkeepers, farmers” who “fled Syria one or two years ago on a costly journey, often passing through Lebanon and Egypt,” where many spend months “in precarious conditions”.

“In Libya we were molested, they told us to leave... we decided to go, to die at sea was better than the hell we were living there,” 15-year-old Nadia from Homs was cited as saying.

At the start of June, the organisation said around a third of minors registered on arrival in Italy were then dropping off the radar, and Italian charities have warned that they may be at risk of falling into the clutches of organised crime groups or organ traffickers.

Missing persons

Italy’s commissioner for missing persons, Vittorio Piscitelli, in April said the missing minors “could end up in the hands of human traffickers, or groups of paedophiles. And we cannot disregard the abominable practice of organ trafficking.” Raffaele Milano, programme director for Save the Children in Italy, said “a solution must be found as soon as possible to avoid other unaccompanied minors leaving the reception centres, becoming ‘invisible’ and exposing themselves to the risk of exploitation or violence”.

The Save the Children report, published on the eve of World Refugee Day, also included data on women, 5,300 of whom made the crossing since the start of the year to June 17.

Favourable weather conditions mean that thousands of other migrants are expected to attempt the crossing in the coming weeks. Gil Arias Fernandez, the head of Frontex, the European Union border coordination agency, said recently that “hundreds of thousands” of migrants were currently in Libya and hoping to leave as soon as possible because of growing lawlessness.

Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano estimated that number at between 400,000 and 600,000 people.

Agence France-Presse
Syrians fleeing the escalating conflict accounted for most of the world’s 2.5 million new refugees last year, UNHCR said.

In all, nearly 3 million Syrians have crossed into neighbouring Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, while another 6.5 million remain displaced within Syria’s borders.

“We are seeing here the immense costs of not ending war, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict,” Guterres said. “We see the Security Council paralysed in many crucial crises around the world.”

No peace at home

Conflicts that erupted this year in Central African Republic, Ukraine and Iraq are driving more families from their homes, he said, raising fears of a mass exodus of Iraqi refugees.

“A multiplication of new crises, and at the same time old crises that seem never to die,” he added.

Afghan, Syrian and Somali nationals accounted for 53 per cent of the 11.7 million refugees under UNHCR’s responsibility. Five million Palestinians are looked after by a sister agency UNRWA.

Most refugees have found shelter in developing countries, contrary to the myth fuelled by some populist politicians in the West that their states were being flooded, Guterres said.

“Usually in the debate in the developed world, there is this idea that refugees are all fleeing north and that the objective is not exactly to find protection but to find a better life.

“The truth is that 86 per cent of the world’s refugees live in the developing world,” he said.

Desperate refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa have drowned after taking rickety boats in North Africa to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe, mainly via Italy.

Western destination

Italy has a mission, known as Mare Nostrum or “Our Sea”, which has rescued about 50,000 migrants already this year. Italy will ask the European Union next week to take over responsibility for rescuing migrants, a task that is costing its navy 12.25 million a month.

“It is important to have a European commitment there and to make sure that such an operation can be sustainable,” said Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal.

The EU bloc has harmonised its asylum system, but the 27 member states still differ in how they process refugees and in their approval rates for asylum applications, he said.

A record 25,300 unaccompanied children lodged asylum applications in 77 countries last year, according to UNHCR.

“We see a growing number of unaccompanied minors on all routes. We see them in the Mediterranean routes, we see them in the Caribbean route, through Mexico to the United States, we see them in the Afghan route into Iran, into Turkey, into Europe,” Guterres said. “We see them everywhere.”


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