Are we in the greatest period of humanitarian need since WWII? 32



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In the lead-up to the ALP National Conference this month, reports have emerged suggesting the opposition may throw its support behind the policy of turning back asylum seeker boats.

When questioned on the topic, Shadow Immigration Minister Richard Marles mentioned that the world is now going through its greatest period of humanitarian need since the second world war.

“We acknowledge that right now the world is going through its greatest period of humanitarian need seen since the second world war. There are more people seeking refuge, more people displaced than at any other point in time … ”
– Shadow Immigration and Border Protection Minister Richard Marles, interview with Fran Kelly on RN Breakfast, June 29, 2015.

Is that statement correct?

Rapid acceleration

It is likely Marles’ comment was a reference to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) annual Global Trends Report, released in June. The agency estimated that at the end of 2014 there was an estimated 59.5 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. There has been a rapid acceleration of displacement, increasing 40 per cent over just three years from 42.5 million in 2011.

From the end of 2013 to the end of 2014, there was an increase of 8.3 million displaced people from the year. That 12-month period also saw the highest annual increase in a single year.

The data in the report is based on figures provided by governments, non-government organisations and the UNHCR. The figures include refugees (19.5 million), asylum seekers (1.8 million), and certain groups of internally displaced persons (38.2 million), collectively referred to as “persons of concern”.

The UNHCR has stated that is the highest level of displacement in the post-WWII era. Situations of conflict, persecution, generalised violence, and human rights violations have formed a “nation of the displaced” roughly equivalent of the population of the UK. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has said:

We are witnessing a paradigm change, an unchecked slide into an era in which the scale of global forced displacement as well as the response required is now clearly dwarfing anything seen before.

More than half of Syria’s population is displaced. It is one of the biggest refugee crises in history with around four million people leaving the country. At least 7.6 million Syrians are also estimated to be displaced within their country at the end of 2014. Children constituted 51 per cent of the refugee population in 2014, the highest figure in more than a decade.

The refugee crisis in Syria was certainly not the only one. Little-publicised conflicts in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Nigeria and Burundi, have added hundreds of thousands to the long-standing refugee populations from Somalia, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Asia grew by 31 per cent in 2014 to nine million people. Continuing displacement was also seen in and from Myanmar in 2014, including of Rohingya from Rakhine state and in the Kachin and Northern Shan regions.

Compounding the ongoing displacement of people, the number of refugee returns is at its lowest point since 1983. During 2014, only 126,800 refugees returned to their country of origin. Ongoing conflict and general political insecurity have contributed to the prevailing trends.

In an effort to escape desperate situations, refugees and migrants risk their lives – the starkest examples are those who have embarked on dangerous boat journeys in the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe and in South East Asia. At the end of 2014, the UNHCR estimated that at least 348,000 people had attempted to reach safety by boat throughout the year.

Response from the international community

In response to this crisis, many destination countries (including Australia) were criticised by the UNHCR for resorting to tougher deterrence measures in an attempt to stem the rise in asylum and refugee flows. Amnesty International described the international community’s response to the Syrian refugee emergency as “dismal”, saying that only 23 per cent of the UN humanitarian appeal for that crisis funded as of June 3, 2015.

The UNHCR’s Guterres did not mince words, saying:

[E]ven as this tragedy unfolds, some of the countries most able to help are shutting their gates to people seeking asylum. Borders are closing, pushbacks are increasing, and hostility is rising. Avenues for legitimate escape are fading away. And humanitarian organisations like mine run on shoestring budgets, unable to meet the spiralling needs of such a massive population of victims. We have reached a moment of truth. World stability is falling apart leaving a wake of displacement on an unprecedented scale.

In the aftermath of WWII, the international community established the United Nations and the Refugee Convention to provide a framework for protection of those who were displaced due to conflict and who could not longer rely upon their own country for safety.

The Refugee Convention also established the principle of responsibility and burden-sharing – the idea that the international community must work together to address refugee crises so that no one country, or a small number of countries, has to cope by themselves.

There is a clearly disproportionate burden on a small number of countries. Around 86 per cent of the world’s refugees are in developing countries. Turkey, Lebanon and Pakistan each host more than one million refugees.

Amnesty International is one of many human rights organisations who have said that the principle of international burden sharing is being ignored “with devastating consequences: the international refugee protection system is broken”. The loss of life and human misery is far higher than many armed conflicts.

The global refugee crisis will not be solved unless the international community recognises that it is a global problem and deals with it as such.


Marles’ statement is consistent with the recent report on global displacement by the UNHCR. Those displaced by conflict and persecution are at the highest levels the UNHCR has recorded, and sadly they are continuing to grow.


This is a good analysis, as the recently released UNHCR report rightly draws our attention to the increasing number of refugees and displaced people around the world.

As noted, it is the “frontline” countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan that are providing temporary refuge for the massive flow of refugees from Syria. Pakistan continues to be the first place for Afghans fleeing their prolonged conflict, but even Pakistan is now a source country for refugees.

However, other conflicts in Africa receive less attention particularly in the English language media, apart from commentary on boat people in the Mediterranean. It rightly is a global issue calling for global attention. The focus on “turn backs”, which was the main topic of the interview, does not address the need for a global approach to increased movement of people.

Tell us, in light of this review of the global refugee situation, do you think Labor should back the government policy of turning back boats? 


The ConversationBy Mary Anne Kenny, Associate Professor, School of Law Murdoch University. Review by Lecturer, Migration Law Program at Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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  1. With so many displaced people in the world I would have to say Richard Marles is correct. You only have to turn on the tv to see people fleeing and heading to other countries. According to news reports people from Greece and heading to Australia and to the England too , they are more just added into the mix. Australia needs to sit down and have a honest discussion as to how many we can take without it being a drain on the country. Refugees have been good for Australia, they helped us grow and prosper, and can do so again

  2. We could take more refugees but they should be placed in country towns, many of them are dying and be placed on a 10 year contract that if they leave the area to live during that period, then they will have to leave Australia, that would alleviate the stress on already over crowded Capitol cities

    5 REPLY
    • I live in a country town and I agree with you. More people will mean more services needed which will mean more jobs.
      Currently in our town you can buy a 3 bed house with bir and carpet and aircon fully fenced yard and garage for between $80000 – $140000.
      We need more people to keep the town alive.

    • Singleton and district were great during the Kosovar crisis back in 1999, being very supportive of the refugees (mind you, they were mostly white Europeans). However, attitudes have really changed since then, alas. People are more selfish and sceptical. Not a good look Australia.

    • Unfortunately David, a huge number of refugees is illiterate and innumerate and even if placed in country towns will not be able to contribute. Centrelink says 80% of refugees are on welfare for five years after arrival. We cannot afford to import tens of thousands of uneducated people, especially those who are moslems. We are already having trouble with the 500,000 moslems already in our country.

  3. We get hardly anyone here compared to those fleeing in Europe..and still we whinge

    3 REPLY
  4. There is profit in conflict, arms manufacturers and even foreign powers are ready to sell or supply arms to warring tribes and sects. Conflict has always occurred but modern weapons and over population has increased it. An automatic weapon is much more effective than spears and swords and makes it almost impossible for civilians without access to arms to defend themselves. I reluctantly agree with Australia’s turn back the boats, but I am appalled by the off shore detention centres. Australia could do more towards setting up a regional refugee centre maybe but I think the flood of displaced will continue world wide.

    1 REPLY
    • Completely agree with every word. Money in ammunition but flying in people with refugee status for people temporarily from camps with little food or shelter is necessary and now.

  5. David that is a great idea If only the people would agree, a lot of them only want yo live in the cities and suburbs, making things a bit more difficult.

  6. humanitarian crisis is a direct result of Islam. UNHCR is a supporter of Islam by ignoring their atrocities and criticising the west for not taking in more muslims. UNHCR would like to see the west taken over by muslims.

  7. I am sure something more positive could be done, but it means thinking differently. Maybe having people to come here to work on infrastructure projects similar to the snowy mountains project…what a benefit to australia those people were. Surely the people trying to leave war torn countries are not the problem, rather the governments of the countries that they are fleeing are the problem. Cannot the UN do something at the source.

  8. You don’t have to look hard to see the solutions lies in making those that cause the greatest harm to pay up for repairing that harm! Yes, there are natural causes but illicit human conduct is resposible for the majority and those who cause the harm then sit back and smile should be made to fix the hell they caused!

  9. So with the contraceptive component being removed from our Foreign Aid Budget, we can expect a massive increase in babies being born, only to starve to death within two years or die of an infectious disease . More souls for jesus policy! Dirty deals being run in our Senate full of catholics and other ideologues. No one cares about the consequences of removing such aid. We are a disgrace.

    2 REPLY

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