The human tragedy of thousands of asylum seekers floundering—and dying–in the Mediterranean highlights an unprecedented global challenge for the 21st century. “In terms of migrants and refugees, nothing has been seen like this since World War Two“, says Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organization for Migrants (IMO). Globally there were estimated to be 16.7 million refugees and 34 million Internally Displaced People (IDPS) at the end of 2013. The conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen alone have created o some 15 million refugees and IDPs. The numbers are growing almost on a daily basis. Just in the past few weeks, the fighting in Yemen has displaced another 150,000 while fighting in Iraq’s Ramadi has added another 114,000 to Iraq’s total displaced of around 3 million refugees and IDPs.
Most of the World’s displaced seek shelter either in their own or neighboring countries. However, buffeted by wars and harsh economic, political and social conditions people mainly from Africa and the Middle East but elsewhere as well, are escaping to the developed world to evade their circumstances – and doing so in growing numbers. And an ever larger number are dying in the effort. Across the world there were an estimated 866,000 asylum applications in 2014 to what the UNHCR calls the 44 “industrialized countries” – 270,000 more than in 2013. This is a number significantly less than the actual numbers of people seeking refuge or better economic circumstances, either legally or illegally, in host nations that offer varying degrees of hospitality. The largest number of asylum applications in 2014 were registered in Germany (173,100), followed by the US (121,200), Turkey (87,800), Sweden (75,100) and Italy (63,700).
According to the UNHCR, Europe received some 714,300 asylum claims in 2014, up from 485,000 in 2013. EU member states accounted for 80% of this number in 2014 – an increase of 44% compared to 2013. As to the country of origin of these asylum seekers the top 5 countries in descending order of volume were Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Eritrea. Syria and Iraq accounted for 30.1% of all asylum applications made in the EU. Many refugees do not immediately apply for asylum in their first point of entry. Many arriving in Southern Europe and the Balkans prefer to wait until they are in northern countries to apply for asylum given their better benefits, etc. Others may never apply, lacking proper documentation or unsure of their asylum prospects. They disappear into informal jobs as they try and build a new life for themselves.
Chances of receiving asylum vary widely. In the UK, 36% of applicants in 2013 received an initial positive decision – but there are appeal processes in play and various other means of staying in the country, legally or otherwise and only 24% of the 2013 cohort were sent back or took advantage of voluntary repatriation schemes. The EU averaged a 25% approval rate in 2013 – Malta (72%) and Italy (62%) had the highest approval rates. Only four countries Germany, Italy, France, and Sweden accounted for over two thirds of asylum applications in that year.
While Syria represented the largest of number asylum seekers in 2014, that number (149,600) is tiny compared to the total number of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries (4 million) and to those internally displaced within the country (8 million). Still, the number of Syrian asylum seekers increased as did Iraqi asylum seekers. Iraqi asylum seekers stood at 68,700 in 21014, more than doubling from 2013’s 37,300 claims. Turkey registered 50,500 or 74% of all Iraqi asylum seekers in 2014. Overall, however, compared to the numbers of Syrians and Iraqis living in bordering countries (Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey), Europe and countries like the US, Australia and others have remained largely closed to those seeking refuge from the wars in Syria and Iraq.
Clearly efforts by the EU to try and stem the flow of arrivals from the Mediterranean will still rely on fences and closed doors only serving to displace the challenge. Ultimately a policy of managed immigration is likely to be the final outcome as the UNHCR calls for a more robust search-and-rescue operation and enhanced legal avenues such as resettlement programs, humanitarian visas, and enhanced family reunification measures. However the EU will also have to deal with the Government in Tripoli which controls the ports of departure but is unrecognized by the EU. A strategy will also be needed to spread the burden of asylum seekers more equitably across the EU and even open transit camps in North Africa and elsewhere and tackle the smugglers and the financial gains made possible by current policies.
However, this is in reality a small portion of the global crisis on refugees and IDPs. By all means we should try and tackle this human tragedy and end the horrors being witnessed now in the Mediterranean. But we should also recognize that the global problem is getting worse as the wars in the Middle East and elsewhere continue and people are displaced and killed and maimed every day. Closing doors and building fences work in very limited ways. Refugees have a way of destabilizing whole societies and regions even decades after the tragedies that led to their displacement. Just as we are doing with climate change and global epidemics, it’s time for a global response to the refugee crisis—before it further destabilizes an already fragile global order.
This article was first published by the World Bank’s Voices and Views blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: Omer Karasapan is the Middle East and North Africa Region’s Knowledge and Learning Coordinator.
Image: A police officer checks the passport of a Chinese immigrant at the Shen Wu textile factory in Prato December 9, 2013. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini.

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