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Mon 10 August 2020
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The consequences of forced migration must be a top developmental and humanitarian priority if so many needlessly wasted lives are to be saved.


The world is currently experiencing the highest rates of forced migration ever known. The numbers of people are staggering: by 2019, an unprecedented 70.8 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide.  

Popular speech tends to call them all “refugees” and, while tens of millions of people do live under the legal protection of refugee status, those who do not fall under the 1951 Refugee Convention have no clear legal path to asylum.

A recent international conference in Istanbul gathered experts to analyse the effects of forced migration, with the aid of the Maya Vakfi Foundation. Since the start of the war in Syria in 2011, more than six million have been internally displaced, and around five million have crossed into other countries and are now in Syrian refugee camps established in Turkey (3,614,108), Lebanon (929,624), Jordan (662,010) and Egypt (131,433).

However, when we examine how many people have been accepted by the countries that played a part in the crisis – either through supplying weapons or turning a blind eye to the actions of the Syrian Government – the picture is very different. In approximate figures, the US has accepted 11,000 Syrians, the UK 10,000, and Canada 4,000.

UNICEF says that the ongoing conflict in Syria has caused the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War, with the lives of more than eight million children in danger. Every day, Syrian children have faced unspeakable violence, endless nights and days of terror, a lack of food and increased disease. If they are not killed or maimed by barrel bombs, or dying for lack of medical care, they are subject to exploitation and abuse, early marriage, child labour, human trafficking and recruitment by armed groups. The scale of the crisis for children is unprecedented.

The knock-on effects will harm communities worldwide.

Many damaged and angry youth, with no sense of belonging, will become radicalised. Broken, wounded families can take at least three generations to heal. We now know, not least from the documentary film Resilience, that the profound trauma many children experience, if not treated, will develop into serious mental and physical illness.


Driving Forces

The current forces driving migration must therefore be addressed and the first and most obvious cause is armed conflict.

The tragedy and chaos that is Syria is but one example of the profound damage that is done when armed conflict replaces any form of negotiation or mediation.

In March 2011, after four decades of dictatorship, the Syrian people rose up peacefully to demand freedom and dignity. The regime of Bashar al-Assad crushed that uprising with force, triggering an international war.

With the involvement of Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates, Turkey and Russia, as well as a US-led coalition, Syria’s complex war has become a battleground for geopolitical rivalry. In the rubble of this destruction, extremists such as Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra have flourished.

The second cause of war is the easy availability of weaponry. In 2016, Britain was the second biggest arms dealer in the world – having sold arms to 22 of the 30 countries on the UK Government’s own human rights watch list since 2010. A full two-thirds of UK weapons over this period were sold to Middle Eastern countries, where instability has fed into increased risk of terror threats to Britain and across the West.

The British arms trade is protected by government secrecy on contracts and the level of subsidy provided through export credit guarantees and financing of R&D. Whenever the public or Parliament raise criticisms, the instant defence is that British jobs are at stake – an assertion that is demonstrably false, since research shows that similar levels of subsidy given to other industries provides twice as many jobs.


Alternatives to War

A different outcome would have been possible if the skills of Syrian civil society had been engaged at an early stage, since the organisations that had evolved over recent decades were sophisticated and knowledgeable.

Citizens for Syria mapped 1,012 viable organisations which could have conveyed the needs of the Syrian people in a rational way, allowing for compromises to be reached.

Women’s peace-building efforts were restricted by lack of funding. The online activist community could have helped, for example, by calling for a guarantee that women’s groups and activists were included in the peace process substantively and at all levels, thus shifting the narrow focus on formal negotiations to a broader peace-building framework using inclusive methods, beyond the obsolete male-dominated processes.

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The discourse on women’s participation must be shifted from a normative “why participate?” to a practical and efficient “how to participate?” This has to come from a genuine recognition of them as influential peace-builders without whom the peace process is not only incomplete, but also unsustainable.

Despite many efforts, the United Nations has shown its internal organisation to be paralysed over Syria, with Permanent Members of the Security Council (who are also consistently among the top five international arms dealers) consistently blocking efforts to negotiate, to allow safe passage, or even to establish ceasefires.

The UN showed itself unable to prevent what became a killing field in Aleppo. This shameful indictment of the international community clearly indicates the urgent need for structural reform of the UN, including an immediate overhaul of a Security Council composed of members with equal voting powers and not subject to ‘one country veto’. The bureaucracy of the UN also requires to be released from the stultifying, dated procedures of the past to introduce streamlined decision-making processes made possible by 21st Century technology.


Migration as Priority

Forced migration today is both a top developmental and humanitarian priority, and we now know enough to develop approaches that advance the potential benefits of migration to harness economic potential, while at the same time tackling the exploitation of vulnerable populations.

We also now know enough to deal with the root causes of armed conflict, to prevent the growth of extremism, to invest in effective peace-building methods, to combat violent crime and to promote development for communities living in extreme poverty.

This is going to require substantially more investment than the funds which are available. Currently, the world spends $1,739,000,000,000 annually on militarisation. A 2.5% tax levied on current annual arms sales would yield approximately $2,360,000,000. That amount would finance the scaling up of proven initiatives to prevent armed conflict.

The movement of people between countries in an increasingly interconnected global culture, and economies peppered with disruption, will continue to grow. Climate collapse will add exponentially to the numbers of people forced to leave their homes. These dynamics are part of long-term global trends. Therefore it is our responsibility, now, to become expert and proficient in our combined efforts to maximise the positive impacts and opportunities of migration.

Today, the main essence is the human factor. Since humans have made mistakes that have traumatised and ruined so many young lives, torturing and killing so many more then, with better knowledge and resources, other humans can change this.


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