In Bangladesh, a makeshift camp of tents and shelters tacked, glued or wired together from anything that will shield from the elements, exists the largest single encampment of refugees in the world. Its population---nearly 890,000---exceeds that of most major cities in the United States.
The camp---called Kutupalong---is made up of Rohingya Muslims, a minority religious sect that fled its native Myanmar when the Buddhist-run government either ignored or tacitly encouraged a reign of terror against it. The violence has included burning entire communities, including mosques, jailing innocent people and murdering untold scores of others. The legacy of bloodshed and violence continues today.
But Kutupalong is far from the only refugee enclave housing populations that soar into the thousands or even hundreds of thousands. In Africa, the Ugandan Bidi Bidi refugee camp has nearly 300,000 South Sudanese who’ve fled that country’s on-going civil war. Two refugee camps in Kenya, Kakama and Dadaab, have a combined population of nearly 420,000 displaced men, women and children.
What these camps have in common are vast shortages of electricity, water and basic hygiene and hope. They are places where matters of life and death usually favor the side of death. What they have in abundance is misery, especially directed at women and their children.
Exactly what is a refugee? The definition supplied by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees is “a displaced person who has been forced to cross a national border and cannot return home.” UNHCR estimates the world-wide refugee population at 68 million.
“We need states to step up in equal measure,” said Metropolitan State University Professor Amy Eckert. “Few states,” said the political scientist, “have borne the brunt of the problem. Sorry to say, we’re one of those.” The United Nations reports that that just ten countries host more than half of this displaced population.
For the first time since 1980, the U.S. took in fewer refugees than the rest of the world. The Pew Research Center puts the number of refugees admitted in 2017 at 33,000 down from 97,000 the year before. Because President Trump has made it clear that his immigration policies will differ radically from previous administrations, it is a trend that should continue.
Refugees from Africa and the Middle East have found haven---though not always safe---in France, Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Last year, Germany accepted only 186,000 refugees, down from the more than 800,000 it took in two years earlier.
Germany, said Eckert, “is one of the places in Europe where natural population growth is declining; the population is getting smaller.” To stem this tide in population and maintain its workforce, accepting refugees is a matter of economic and national security.
But economic considerations aside, there has also been a backlash, not only in Germany, but in France, Sweden and the United Kingdom. Refugees have often been the target of a palpable hatred, she said. Nationalistic themed marches and demonstrations are not uncommon; neither are flashpoints of violence aimed at refugees.
A growing nationalism in places like France or Germany has placed refugees in the crosshairs of violence. But it is nothing new. And it is also almost incidental when compared to what occurred in Bosnia in 1993.
In April 1995, the United Nations declared Srebrenica a “safe zone,” for Bosnian Muslims but had failed to demilitarize the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the summer of 1995 well trained and heavily armed Bosnian Serb forces entered and killed more than 7,000 boys and men. It was the largest single mass murder in Europe since World War II. The United Nations declared it a crime of genocide.
“There is no easy fix,” said Eckert. Nations, she said, “have to address the situations that are causing people to flee.” Rebuilding governments and economies are essential if the problems are ever going to be fixed.
Because news cameras are fixed on Syria, the world often watches in real time as chaos and death play out. It is estimated that of the 22 million pre-war population, more than 13 million now require some form of humanitarian aid. The war has caused more than 6 million Syrians to leave their homes and relocate within country. Another five million have left the country. War’s end is nowhere in sight. More than 400,000 are said to have died in the war.
But escape often offers little or no relief to girls and women. Soldiers, including official United Nation forces, have seen them as the fruits of war. Depending on their age, girls can be taken and forced into slavery, even sold. Too many, despite their age, can be victims of rape and sometimes forced to marry their assailants. There is also physical torture. Crisis exacerbates gender inequalities.
The refugee crisis is not isolated to Africa and the Middle East. For the past several years, the Simón Bolívar Bridge connecting Venezuela with Columbia has been populated with Venezuelans fleeing their country.
In the last days of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, oil, which had been the backbone of the nation’s economy, was no longer a reliable driver. Chavez successor, Nicolas Maduro, has done very little to turn things around. The economy has entered an era of hyperinflation. Normalcy has been replaced by panic and people are leaving en masse. The complaints of hospital shelves being empty even for routine health issues are daily laments. Even basic food staples, rice and beans, are often scarce or worse.
It is estimated that more than a million Venezuelans now live in Columbia. Unless and until Maduro finds a way to steer his nation into calmer waters, the exodus will continue. But it is just one such exodus rocking South America. El Salvador and Nicaragua are seeing similar refugee patterns.