[SCMP Column] The Bigger Crisis Within

October 01, 2016

As Europe’s leaders wrestle with political and social upheavals blamed on “unprecedented” floods of refugees from the Middle East, spare a thought for those countries wrestling with the “refugees” that we never see. Whatever their anti-immigrant complaints, and no matter what the challenges faced, Europe’s populists should think themselves lucky.

A fascinating and depressing new examination of how conflict and natural disasters displace millions within countries, without them ever crossing into other countries and forcing us to notice, provides some perspective that even the grumpiest of anti-immigrant xenophobes should note.

According to the Global Report on Internal Displacement (GRID), prepared by the Norwegian Refugees Council and its Norway-based sister, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Council, a total of 27.8m people were last year forced to flee their homes without crossing into a second country – 8.6m to escape conflicts, and a sobering 19.2m people fleeing natural disasters like earthquakes, floods or typhoons. For comparison, Europe has suffered an influx of around 1.8m, with Germany accepting perhaps a half of them thanks to Angela Merkel’s controversial compassion – a compassion that is costing her and her party dear ahead of next year’s national elections.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not making light of the stresses being created across Europe as a result of Islamic turmoil emanating from Syria, Iraq and Yemen over the past five years. It is just that Europe’s self-centred concerns are blinding many to a far bigger crisis that we ignore simply because it does not spill across borders. As Britain’s Teresa May talked at the UN Assembly last week of “more people being displaced than at any point in modern history”, she showed frightful ignorance of the internal displacements that have for decades brought calamity to many parts of the world (outside Europe) every year.

Looking just at the displacements in 2015 due to conflict, we find that Yemen has within its own borders 2.26m people forced to abandon their homes because of Saudi Arabian air strikes and an economic blockade. We find 1.6m Syrian civilians forced to abandon their homes because of the ongoing civil war. There are more than 1.13m people displaced inside Iraq. Turmoil in Ukraine has displaced almost 1m people within the country’s boundaries. Turmoil has been felt in the Congo (700,000 displaced) and Nigeria (more than 800,000).

But it is the dislocations due to disasters in 2015 that take the breath away – more than twice as many dislocations as due to conflict. Earthquakes in China and Nepal displaced more than 6.2m people, while appalling storms and floods uprooted 3.7m people in India. Three super-typhoons destroyed the homes of 2.6m Filipinos, and Chile’s massive earthquake forced over 1m to move home.

But last year’s natural disasters were modest compared with damage done in previous years. Apparently more than 203m people have faced “protracted displacement” due to disasters of one kind or another over the past eight years, with 2010 being the worst year in a generation. Over 42m were dislocated in 2010 alone – dominated by massive earthquakes in Haiti, Chile and Indonesia. That was the year the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted in Iceland, and heatwaves killed thousands across Europe.

As fascinating and troubling as the Report’s mainstream findings, the Norwegian researchers also looked at three less visible causes of massive dislocation – criminal violence, droughts, and development projects. More than 1m people in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico have been forced permanently to flee their home areas because of criminal violence linked with drug trafficking and gang conflicts: “People fleeing criminal violence fall through the cracks, leaving them with little choice other than to embark on dangerous migrations, risking trafficking and murder,” the report notes.

While the researchers note that drought is not a direct "cause" of displacement in and of itself, it has impacts on food and livelihood insecurity, including increasing potential for conflict over scarce resources. They say displacement occurs at a “tipping point” where communities’ normal coping strategies collapse under severely stressed conditions: “Recognising people as internally displaced as opposed to voluntary migrants would help to identify them as people who should be prioritised for protection and assistance.”
The dislocation due to development projects is perhaps most surprising. After all, development projects are supposed to benefit communities, not harm them. But the Norwegian researchers note that worldwide, around 15m people a year are forced away from their homes because of such projects – with dams and reservoir projects apparently being most disruptive. While few countries keep records of such dislocation, both China and India do. Beijing says that 80m people have been displaced in China since 1950, while Delhi reports 65m in India since 1947.

The report says that two decades after resettlement, at least 46% of the 10m people resettled to make way for reservoirs in China are still living in extreme poverty: “Rather than being priority beneficiaries on account of their losses, the displaced usually pay the price for development projects and end up worse off. Displacement deepens inequality, decimates communities and undermines development gains by making worse the very poverty that such projects purportedly seek to alleviate… Decades of study have shown that displacement associated with development projects leads to impoverishment and disempowerment.”

For all its shocking numbers, the GRID is disappointingly short on conclusions and recommendations, but some ought to be self-evident:
·         Whatever stress Europeans are currently facing, the significant majority of the world’s most tragic dislocations occur out of sight and out of mind in the Middle East (due to conflict) and Asia (due to natural disasters).
·         If we paid better attention to – and devoted more resources to calming – such protracted “internal” conflicts, the forces driving much of the migration that troubles Europeans would be mitigated.
·         After the dreadful conflicts that blighted Asia’s economies up to the 1970s, the Asia-Pacific region has for four decades been mercifully free of the turmoil that currently blights the Middle East and Central Europe – but our region more than makes up for this as home for most of the world’s worst natural disasters. Managing these more effectively would do much to reduce the region’s most extreme poverty.
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