It would be easy to be despondent on World Refugee Day this year. After all, every day brings more appalling images of people fleeing violence and repression round the globe — and the sheer scale of the crisis can seem overwhelming.
To better understand today’s refugee crisis, and how the international community can help, here are five things you need to know.
1. There are more refugees in the world today than at any recent time in history.
The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) announced on Monday that there are now over 65 million people forcibly displaced around the world — a nearly 10 percent increase from last year alone and a more than 50 percent spike in just the last five years. To put that into a U.S. perspective, displaced populations now outnumber the entire populations of Pennsylvania, Illinois, Missouri, Maryland, Wisconsin, Colorado, Oregon, Kansas, Iowa, and Alabama combined.
2. The Mediterranean route is incredibly dangerous for refugees seeking safety.
Many refugees have fled their homes and undertaken dangerous journeys in the search of safer ground, only to be met with rejection, detainment, hostility, discrimination, and even violence by groups eager to make refugees a political scapegoat.
The UNHCR found that 211,385 refugees arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean this year — a perilous voyage that has left 2,868 refugees dead or missing. Since 2014, more than 10,000 people have died crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, a fatality rate equal to that of many small wars.
3. Europe isn’t the only place hosting refugees — and it isn’t hosting the most.
Despite the rise of anti-immigrant hatred across Europe, other parts of the world are still doing just as much, and in some cases more, to take in those fleeing war and persecution. Africa and Asia registered more than four times the number of new refugees than Europe in 2015.
Through 2015, UNHCR reported that sub-Saharan Africa was host to the largest number of refugees at 4.41 million, followed by Europe at 4.39 million (with 2.5 million of this figure in Turkey alone), Asia and the Pacific at 3.55 million, the Middle East and North Africa at 2.7 million, and the Americas at 746,000.
4. Better understanding the refugee crisis is a necessary first step to help resolve it.
While Syria is the largest source country of refugees, it is important to note that there are large numbers of refugees fleeing from other areas of the world as well. Other top countries refugees are fleeing from include Afghanistan, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, Myanmar, Eritrea, and Colombia.
If we want the next World Refugee Day to be more optimistic than this one, there needs to be far more credible and effective efforts to resolve the conflicts in these countries. Trying to reduce the number of refugees without addressing — or understanding — the conflicts that create them in the first place is almost impossible.
Of course, it’s also necessary for U.N. member states to recommit to international humanitarian law. We cannot stand by as attacks on civilians and hospitals rage on unabated and encourage the worst instincts of warring parties on the ground.
5. There’s still hope.
In response to the growing numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) across the world, and the international community’s failure to adequately manage these flows, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon hosted the first ever World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul from May 23–24. While there was a fair amount of criticism leading up to the Summit, especially after Doctors Without Borders decided not to participate, almost everyone agrees that reforming the global humanitarian system remains both crucial and overdue. The Summit more formally began a much needed, and more inclusive, discussion about how to reform our broken humanitarian system in order to better cope with and support the growing refugee and IDP populations around the world.
Fortunately, this conversation is set to continue, and hopefully produce some tangible outcomes, at two summits during the UN General Assembly meetings this fall: the U.N. General Assembly Summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants on September 19 and the Leader’s Summit on Refugees hosted by President Obama on September 20.
And amidst all this heartbreak, there is a silver lining. More and more host communities — including in the United States and Europe — are learning not only that refugees can actually help the economy, but also that the desires of refugees are not so different from their own. They simply want to work hard and earn a living for their families, they want their children to be educated and thrive, and they want a home that is safe.
Nothing about that sounds foreign at all.
John Norris is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and author of Mary McGrory: The First Queen of Journalism which was recently announced as a finalist for the LA Times Book Award.
Carolyn Kenney is a Research Associate with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress, working specifically on the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative.