Philippa Stroud is CEO of the Legatum Institute and co-author of their latest report into refugees, Global People Movements.
It is nearly three years since the death of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose death focused the world’s attention on the refugee crisis. The images of his tiny body, washed up on a Turkish beach, rightly shocked and appalled us all. Yet in the period since his untimely death, there is little sign to suggest we are any closer to addressing either the causes or the consequences of the crisis, with the conflict in Syria continuing unabated.
The impact of those images were every bit as powerful as Michael Buerk’s unforgettable coverage of Ethiopia’s famine during the late 1980s, which galvanised a generation, mobilising everyone from our politicians to our musicians to act. It is time for us to accept that the refugee crisis requires every bit as urgent a response: it is the humanitarian issue of our time.
Today, we mark UN World Refugee Day. We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record, as individuals seek to create their own pathways from poverty to prosperity. For far too many, these are journeys not of opportunity but of necessity. Chronic instability and economic stagnation in many countries have seen millions risk their liberty – and their lives – to seek a brighter future elsewhere for themselves and their families.
People undertaking these so-called ‘irregular’ journeys are remarkably vulnerable. They are likely to face exploitation at the hands of human traffickers, who generate more than $150 billion in illegal profits each year. Worse still, they may find themselves trapped in a world of modern slavery and sexual exploitation from which they are unable to escape. They are unprotected, accumulate debt, and have no legal recourse.
This phenomenon requires an urgent response. We live in a world in which nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute as a result of conflict or persecution, according to the UNHCR. However, we must first improve our understanding of the issue, looking beyond the rhetoric to uncover the facts. Although migration has been a feature of political debate in West European states, their share of immigrants as a percent of their native-born population is considerably smaller than elsewhere, whilst most migrant journeys take place within the region of origin. The lowest income countries host about 30 per cent of the global total of refugees. Of the 66 million people globally who have been forcibly displaced, approximately 40.3 million are displaced within their own countries.
To date, we lack the data to form an accurate appraisal of the motivations behind these extraordinary journeys, and the risks faced by those undertaking them. One figure illustrates this perhaps better than any other: the fact that the number of identified victims of human trafficking could represent less than one per cent of the true number. Furthermore, existing distinctions between ‘refugee’, ‘migrant’ and ‘trafficking victim’ do not appear to reflect the complexity of these irregular journeys, as people take on differing statuses at different moments of what is invariably a long and traumatic road.
Consequently, we are struggling to see the issues with clarity, and to respond with compassion. By its very nature, this is an international issue, with no single, simple solution. It is therefore imperative that we work together, to identify the key trends, and to debate and shape an effective policy response.
It is essential that we remember a simple truth: that behind every statistic is an individual. For each and every one of them, these journeys are motivated by a simple desire we can all identify with: to build a life where we can fulfil our potential, free from the threat of conflict, oppression, poverty and hunger. We must remember that all people, regardless of whether they feature in migration, refugee or trafficking statistic have the potential to be contributors to society.
Each life kept on hold in a refugee camp, devalued through slavery or forced prostitution, or lost in transit is a human tragedy. We owe it to those undertaking these journeys – and to ourselves – to give this urgent issue the attention it deserves.