Disproportionate burden of refugees on developing nations

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United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN body responsible for welfare of refugees, recently released its annual report for 2013, indicating an alarming in the number of refugees globally. The previous year alone has added 2.5 million refugees, in large part due to Syrian crisis, taking the total to 11.2 million refugees worldwide. The world’s greatest origin country of refugees continues to be Afghanistan, belching out over 2.8 million refugees. The UN Report goes on to say- "The 2013 level of displacement was the highest on record since comprehensive statistics on global forced displacement have been collected since 1989." With ISIS unleashing unprecedented horrors on Shias and Yazidis, this number is only set to spiral upward in 2014.

Refugees, given their socio-economic and political helplessness, are easily the most neglected and exploitable class of humans. Their upkeep also demands considerable resources-economic, social and political- on the part of host countries. Given the need for such resources, the burden of hosting refugees should ideally be shared equally between developed and developing countries, given the vast dominance of the former over the requisite resources.

However, as this analysis shows, the burden of hosting refugees is skewed heavily against developing countries. Currently, 85% of refugees are being hosted by developing countries; 22% refugees are being hosted by Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Worryingly, developing countries hosted 70% of total refugees a decade ago, which means there is a sharply increasing trend here. To be sure, the crises driving maximum refugees in the past decade have all originated in regions surrounded by developing nations, which has naturally resulted in higher burden on these nations. But it shouldn’t, in any way, give the developed nations an excuse to wash their hands off this major responsibility.

As the first tab in the graphic below shows, Pakistan, with nearly 1.7 million refugees, hosts the highest number in the world. Thanks to its porous borders with Afghanistan, Pakistan has seen several waves of refugees fleeing Afghanistan, beginning with the Soviet invasion in 1978. In fact, the top 5 countries in the world by number of refugees hosted are all developing. The top 10 countries have just one developed nation amongst them-Germany. 

The contrast is still more staggeringly brought out by the second tab which shows refugee burden on host countries in terms of ‘refugees hosted/1000 population’, with the darkest regions all depict developing countries. Lebanon and Jordan are most easily discernible on the map due to their geographical proximity to Syria, which has sent most of those fleeing the civil war to these two nations. Lebanon hosts the largest number of refugees in relation to its national population, with 178 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants. This is the highest burden a country has been exposed to since 1980. Jordan (88/1000 inhabitants) and Chad (34/1000 inhabitants) ranked second and third, respectively. There is only one developed nation, Sweden, that figures in the top 15 when compared on this metric. Moreover, in many refugee situations, problems are aggravated when refugees are a substantial proportion of the local, if not national population. For example, in Nepal, in the district of Jhapa, 90,000 refugees represent over 13 per cent of the local population; in Ngara, in the United Republic of Tanzania, the recent refugee influxes meant that the local population was outnumbered by a ratio of approximately 4: 1; i.e. there were some 700,000 refugees among a local population of 186,000. In Malawi, a refugee influx which began in 1986, had led, by 1993, to one million Mozambican refugees in the country, some 10 per cent of the national population.

The third tab representing economic burden of hosting refugees is again loaded heavily against developing nations. Least Developed Countries (LDCs) such as Liberia, Chad and South Sudan lead this pack of nations. Liberia has to spend a whopping 87 times (as a measure of GDP) more than Sweden to host a single refugee, which is the economically most burdened developed nation when ranked on this metric.

The fourth tab, which sizes up the top 10 refugee-hosting developing nations against the top 10 refugee-hosting developed nations on the metrics discussed above, shows that, on an average, the top 10 developing nations face nearly 50 times the economic pressure and 8 times the population pressure in hosting refugees, also outweighing the developed nations in terms of total number of refugees hosted by nearly 5 million.

Such disproportionate burden on developing nations becomes even starker in the wake of UN Refugee Convention of 1951, which defines the International Law for refugees, has been signed by nearly all developed nations, and precisely not by those nations that carry maximum burden. At the heart of the Convention lies the principle of ‘non-refoulement,’ which refers to the practice of not turning back the genuinely persecuted to the persecutor. The principle has passed into the annals of customary international law, which means it is supposed to be obeyed by both signatory and non-signatory states, though most particularly by the former, which comprises almost all developed nations. In 2013, Germany received the most asylum applications in the whole world. However, year after year, despite paying lip service to non-refoulement, developed nations turn back a majority of asylum seekers, often on frivolous grounds. For instance, EU accepted only 25% asylum applications in 2013, forcing the rest to either turn into illegal immigrants or return to the very horrors they fled.

In the words of James Hathway (founding director of the University of Michigan’s Program in Refugee and Asylum Law) the problem of refugees, like the one on climatic change, can only be dealt with firmly through the paradigm of a “common but differentiated responsibility.” Developed countries cannot shrug off the responsibility on the pretext that most refugees come from developing countries. Growing number of refugees are a direct threat to international peace and security as they can be easily manipulated as tools for terrorist activities, something which Rohingya refugees from Myanmar have already been accused of. Developed countries with superior resources must step up to the plate and developing countries must accede to the Refugee Convention in order to allow UNHCR more teeth in handling the swarms of refugees flooding them. Only a coordinated, concerted effort can succour the wounds of this most neglected class of human beings.