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Asia helps push world refugee numbers to record high

Luke Hunt
The annual United Nations report on the state of refugees around the globe reads more like an end-of-year corporate finance sheet. It’s just numbers and like a profit-and-loss account, the figures can be interpreted in many ways.
But the bottom line is that a record number of nearly 71 million people cannot live in their own homes. No matter how the figures stack up, Global Trends: Forced Displacement 2018 makes for grim reading.
In Asia, the situation has stabilised but not improved and it would have worsened dramatically had the internally displaced Uyghurs of China been included in the report.
About 1.1 million Uyghurs have been interned for what China insists is a government-led campaign to stamp out terrorists, but the reality smacks of laojiao (re-education through labour), a return to the brutal labour camps initiated under Mao Zedong and not abolished until late 2013.
Thousands more have sought sanctuary abroad, yet they didn’t rate a mention in a report that dealt with refugees—who had crossed borders—and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in equal measure.
The world must now cope with a headline figure of 70.8 million forcibly displaced people. That includes 25.9 million refugees—20.4 million under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—41.3 million IDPs and 3.5 million asylum seekers.
The report noted an increase of 2.3 million people who were forcibly displaced from their homes in 2018 because of “persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations. As a result, the world’s forcibly displaced population remained yet again at a record high.”
To put that in a more appropriate perspective, refugee numbers under the UNHCR mandate have almost doubled since 2012.
Myanmar remains the biggest headache for resolving refugee issues in Southeast Asia. The only bright spot was that the population was stable over the last 12 months at 1.1 million, with 906,600 living in camps in Bangladesh.
Another 200,000 are split between Malaysia and Thailand, with India accommodating almost 19,000.
Altogether, 67 per cent of all refugees worldwide came from just five countries: Syria (6.7 million), Afghanistan (2.7 million), South Sudan (2.3 million), Myanmar (1.1 million) and Somalia (900,000).
Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, is dealing with an additional 343,300 IDPs and a sharp increase in political asylum seekers.
In Asia, major countries of origin for refugees included China, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Between them, they added about 500,000 to the different lists of displaced people.
The report also noted that repatriation numbers had worsened, with just 593,000 refugees returning home last year, down from 667,000 a year earlier, or less than three per cent of the refugee population.
IDP repatriation suffered a sharp drop to 2.3 million from 4.2 million, with the report adding that data did “not show whether these returns were safe, organised and sustainable.”
This has been a major issue between Myanmar and Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Sri Lanka and India, with repatriation deals between these countries constantly coming unstuck.
At a recent ASEAN gathering in Bangkok, almost two dozen Rohingya organizations and civil societies raised concerns about the trade bloc’s Emergency Response and Action Team and its preliminary needs assessment on repatriation efforts.
“The report at times reads more as if it is designed to please the government of Myanmar than a product from members of a reputable institution,” they said in a joint statement.
“There is no mention of the well-documented genocide perpetrated by the Myanmar security forces that drove 740,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh in 2017.”
Pakistan hosted 1.4 million refugees, nearly all from Afghanistan, second only to Turkey on a global level. The report noted: “This population is similar in size to that reported at the end of 2017, with the addition of newborns balanced out by reductions mainly due to returns.” It also had 75,400 asylum seekers awaiting a decision.
Sri Lanka counted 114,000 refugees, mostly Tamils who live in India, but ongoing resentment in the aftermath of a 26-year civil war, which ended a decade ago, has resulted in most preferring to remain in the dilapidated camps of the subcontinent.
The United Nations said that just 16.7 per cent of all asylum seekers found refuge in developed countries but a third could be found amid the squalour of the least developed nations.
Statistical analysis included demographic breakdowns according to age, gender, ethnicity and religion. Most telling was that half of the refugee population are children.
In the final analysis, repatriation efforts have failed while the number of refugees and IDPs continues to grow at record levels leading to a dreadful fate for too many people.
Had this report been written for the corporate world, investors would be counting the numbers and climbing over each other for a stake in a blue-sky future. But refugees are not an industry, they are a tragedy who rely on handouts. UCAN
Luke Hunt is a senior opinion writer for
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