60 Million People Displaced: What You Need To Know About the Refugee Crisis

Over the past few months, a troubling image has accompanied nightly news stories: faces of displaced people struggling to find refuge. Just last week images of a little girl running up to the Pope during his visit to the United States took over media outlets. She made headlines for hand delivering a letter to him that detailed her family’s struggle as refugees living in fear of deportation. Add that to the staunch anti-immigration policies touted by the GOP Presidential candidates like Donald Trump, and the flood of refugees entering Europe from Syria, and it’s clear we’re in the midst of a crisis.

Any sense that this may not be a critical situation was erased yesterday with the announcement that approximately 60 million people are now displaced by conflict and mistreatment. The statistic came from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who began the job almost a decade ago—at a time when the number of refugees was at 38 million and steadily declining. With no end in sight, it’s time to unpack the refugee crisis, establish how we got here, and what can be done.

Who Are The Refugees?

Among the 60 million migrants currently fleeing persecution in their home countries, more than two-thirds identify as Muslim. The overwhelming xenophobia against these religious communities comes as no surprise, given the ongoing trend of hatred and intolerance for Muslims that has cropped up abroad and within the United States in a post-911 world. One need only look at the case of teenage clockmaker Ahmed Mohamed to know that there is a problem with how people of Muslim faith are treated in the Western world.

Geographically, the refugees overwhelmingly come from the “interlinked mega-crises” in Iraq and Syria, with a total of 15 million people fleeing from both countries. In addition to that conflict, Guterres explained that:

“In the last 12 months, 500,000 people have fled their homes in South Sudan, 190,000 in Burundi, 1.1 million in Yemen and 300,000 in Libya. Tens of thousands are fleeing gang violence in Central America. And there has been little or no improvement in the crises in Central African Republic, Nigeria, Ukraine, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

As the refugee population nearly doubled in the past decade, the source of the crisis can be linked back to fifteen conflicts that have either begun or been reignited in the past five years alone. As the American public sits transfixed as news agencies share stories of the refugee crisis abroad, it’s best to first throw it back to the summer of 2014, when the United States’ southern border became a focal point of the discussion on refugee rights.

The Child Refugees of South America

As gang wars and poverty ripped through a number of South American countries and forced thousands of children to flee, the United States border became a political battleground on immigration reform. After increasing year after year since 2010, last summer saw an epidemic explode into the American news media. Tens of thousands of children began crossing — or attempting to cross — the border into the United States. Authorities estimated that between 60,000 and 80,000 children would seek safe haven by the end of the year, and that figure was expected to potentially double by the end of 2015.

As jails and immigration centers came to look like nightmarish daycare centers and politicians scrambled to find a viable solution, the quality of life for the young refugees plummeted. According to a complaint filed last June by the American Civil Liberties Union and four immigrant rights groups, accusations about conditions made by 116 children in custody described a lack of medical care, ice-cold holding cells in which bright fluorescent lights were kept switched on day and night, and chronic violations of the law that requires Border Patrol to cease holding an immigrant after 72 hours of confinement.

Even with these conditions, the children were better off than if they had stayed in their home countries. As a 17-year-old boy explained to a U.N. refugee agency staffer, “My grandmother is the one who told me to leave. She said: ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do, the rival gang will shoot you, or the cops. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.’”

As the border crisis continues in the United States, another epidemic has been brewing in the Middle East and is now—thanks to ISIS—exploding into one of the worst refugee crises in decades.

The Middle Eastern Exodus

After four and a half years in crisis, the Syrian civil war’s effects on the region’s population has caused more than four million refugees to leave their country. Internationally, the problem had been covered by the media, alongside reports on the spread of the terrorist group ISIS throughout the Middle East, but it was one particular image that caused the world to finally begin to pay attention in a major way.

Last month, the image of the lifeless body of a young boy named Aylan Kurdi who washed ashore in Europe gripped the international community, thrusting the refugee crisis into the political sphere in a way it hadn’t before. The boy was found lying face down in the surf, not far from Turkey’s fashionable resort town of Bodrum. He was one of twelve other Syrians who drowned while attempting to reach the Greek island of Kos, and his story mirrored thousands of others who tragically died while trying to cross from the Middle East into Europe.

Since that moment, the media has captured the reactions from European countries facing an influx of refugees. Germany has become one of the biggest names to come up, because of their response to the crisis. In August, the country announced it would waive United Nations rules and allow Syrian migrants to apply for asylum regardless of how they got there. The move appeared to be the correct and compassionate way to deal with the situation yet it has turned into a nightmare for the country. Authorities have predicted that more than 800,000 refugees will enter the country by the end of the year—creating a burden of great economic and logistical proportions for a country simply trying to do the right thing.

Moving Forward and Seeking a Solution

As the number of refugees surges, there is no end in sight to the fighting and conflicts that have forced over 60 million people to flee their homes. It is a crisis we can no longer ignore, and a problem that will require an unprecedented humanitarian shift in resources and international cooperation. As countries like the United States continue to hesitate on the issue and the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR) reports that it expects to “receive just 47 percent of what it needs by the end of the year,” it’s time for the international community to come together to find the funding, and do their part to save the millions who have fled in hopes of finding a better life.

Check out the International Rescue Center to see how you can help. 

Images via PBS, The Huffington Post, and The New York Post

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