By the time John Kerry left Tel Aviv and a 12-hour ceasefire began on July 26, 2014, the body count in Gaza had reached 856 Palestinians and 40 Israelis dead, as well as several thousand wounded. Now, the Palestinian toll has exceeded 1,000. Left out of the casualty figures, but no less important, are all the people who have been forced from their homes and have become refugees in their own country. This reality, that war’s heaviest impact is on civilian populations, is often obscured by its frequency. People flee as the bombs fall; another refugee camp is set up to house thousands of them; and thousands more line the roads leading to another country. How often have we read such reports?
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) says there are around 5 million Palestinians in the Middle East who count as refugees, making them the world’s largest refugee population. About a third of them are registered with the agency in 58 camps located in Gaza, the West Bank and surrounding countries. The other two-thirds are not in camps. Except for those living in Jordan, Palestinians are stateless; they do not have citizen rights, whether in Israeli-occupied territory or in Syria and Lebanon.
With the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the figure for Palestinian refugees is rising again. It draws our attention to the desperate worldwide refugee situation. The main United Nations refugee organization—UNHCR, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees—provides statistics and, along with numerous nongovernmental organizations, various forms of relief. Its 2013 report gives a total worldwide refugee population of around 11.7 million, of whom UNHCR assists about 8.5 million. That figures does not include a staggering 24 million IDPs (internally displaced persons) who, like the refugees, overwhelmingly live in the Middle East and Africa. When all types of forcibly displaced persons are counted, the global figure is over 45 million, the highest total in twenty years.
You can imagine what the costs of helping all these people must be, and how increasingly difficult it must also be to raise adequate funds when the problem keeps growing and when so many other global issues compete for money. At the end of 2013 UNHCR’s budget called for around $5.3 billion. Yet, it only raised about 60 percent of that amount from governments and private sources. (The US, at 36 percent; Japan, at nine percent; and the European Union at seven percent are the top three governmental donors. Private donations account for seven percent of all funding.)
Keeping up with the world refugee crisis is virtually impossible. Just look at what has happened in the Middle East this year. Millions of Syrians and Iraqis have fled to neighboring countries or calmer parts of their own country (such as Kurdish territory in Iraq). Many Iraqi families have become refugees for the second or third time in recent years. Afghan refugees, numbering 2.6 million, are stranded in Pakistan and Iran. Meanwhile, in Africa, very large numbers of people from Somalia, Sudan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Eritrea have also been forced to flee. The strain on the budgets of host countries is enormous, and the stresses that providers must face as they try to meet basic needs are huge. Moreover, refugee camps are fertile ground for gangs, recruitment by terrorist groups and political factions, and fights over scarce resources.
And let’s remember that “refugees,” as politically defined, does not include migrant workers and their family members – although it should. Consider, in the US alone, the roughly three million undocumented migrants from Mexico and beyond as the many thousands of children who have crossed the border alone from Central America. They aren’t exactly receiving a warm welcome from Texans and Arizonans–though I’m pleased to note that the governor of Oregon has declared those children are welcome here.
Or take the North Koreans who manage to cross the border with China to escape horrendous repression. They must somehow blend in with the Korean Chinese population; but if they are caught and returned to China, they are treated as migrants and thus denied the rights granted to refugees under international law. We need to remind ourselves that ever since the enormous refugee problem at the end of World War II, refugees who have “a well-founded fear of persecution” have the right to resettlement in another country, and cannot be sent back by the receiving country. Tell that to Beijing.
Interested in helping? Mercy Corps, Catholic Relief Services, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, CARE, and the International Committee of the Red Cross are among the many relief organizations that are doing wonderful work. Global Corps offers a full list of organizations working with civilians suffering under the thumb of violence, and we can all help. When the elephants dance, the grass gets trampled, as they say. If we can’t immediately end the violence or reconcile the parties, we must, at least, care for the people most affected.
Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, and Editor-in-Chief of the international affairs quarterly Asian Perspective, and blogs at In the Human Interest.