Refugee Council of Australia
Large cardboard Welcome refugees sign in protest

State of the Nation 2017: Refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia

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Leaving danger

The world in crisis

In the past two years, a record number of people have been forced to seek safety from persecution, conflict, violence and violations of human rights than at any time since World War II. By the end of 2015, more than 65 million people had been forced to flee their homes – or one in every 113 people in the world.

Of those 65.3 million seeking safety, 21.3 million were recognised as refugees and 3.2 million were seeking asylum. More than half of the refugees under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) came from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. While the Middle East has taken most of the world’s attention, a growing number of people in Africa continued to flee conflicts across the continent.

We are now at a point where humanitarian agencies are struggling to do the bare minimum of what they need to do to protect people. UNHCR is estimated to have received just half of its expected budget for 2016 for its life-saving assistance and essential services.

Despite the media narrative, the displacement crisis is one that is being managed mostly by poorer countries. Of the world’s refugees, 86%, or 13.9 million people, were living in developing countries. For many living in those developing countries, their lives are lived in the margins. Many do not have legal status. They often have limited access to work, health care and education and struggle to survive. Others live in countries which are becoming increasingly dangerous and where their legal status, ability to work, seek education and healthcare are greatly limited, such as in Iraq and Pakistan. These conditions force some people to move on, often dangerously – as we saw in 2015, when over a million people fled to Europe by sea.

In the past two years, we saw the best and worst of humanity responding to this crisis. Many volunteers have come to help, from rescues at sea to invitations into their homes. On the other hand, countries have been closing their doors and borders, Europe signed a deal with Turkey to stop people from coming and far-right parties across the western world have stoked fear and racism.

For the people displaced it remains increasingly difficult to find safety. Decreasing numbers of people have been able to return home in recent years, with only 201,400 refugees returning to 39 countries in 2015, the third-lowest number over the past 20 years. In 2015, of the more than 1.19 million refugees that UNHCR have identified as being in need of resettlement just 107,100 people were permanently resettled — that is, less than 1% of the total. More than 6.7 million people are living in a ‘protracted refugee situation’ — one where 25,000 or more people of the same nationality have been living in exile for five or more years in one country.

Within Australia’s own region, there are particular challenges. In the first half of 2015, around 31,000 Rohingya refugees and Bangladesh migrants got on dangerous boats, with over 1,100 of them dying at sea. In May 2015, after a crackdown on human trafficking networks in Thailand, thousands of people were abandoned by smugglers and remained stranded at sea for weeks as countries in the region refused to allow them to land in a situation labelled “maritime ping-pong”. It is impossible to verify how many people died on these stranded boats as a result of violence, starvation, dehydration and disease. Australia’s then Prime Minister when asked if he would resettle some of the stranded Rohingya infamously stated “Nope. Nope. Nope”. Eventually, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand agreed to provide “temporary shelter” to this group of people. More recently in the last months of 2016, 65,000 Rohingya have reportedly fled to Bangladesh escaping what has been labelled a genocide underway in Myanmar.

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