Humanity on the Move
Humanity on the Move
The Global Risks Landscape sees a noticeable increase in both perceived likelihood and impact of the risk of large-scale involuntary migration.16The definition of this risk includes forced migration caused not only by violence and conflicts, such as those driving the exodus from Syria and Iraq, but also for environmental or economic reasons. The risk is seen as more relevant in the next 18 months than the next 10 years (see Figure 1.2). However, it is strongly interconnected with other risks that are considered highly worrisome in the longer term: not only interstate conflict and state collapse but also climate change and water crises, as discussed above.
Global refugee flows have reached a level that is unprecedented in recent history. In 2014, 59.5 million people were forcibly displaced in the world, compared to 40 million at the time of World War II.17More than half of these recent refugees come from three conflict-ridden countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.18The trend is upwards: during 2014, the number of people displaced – 42,500 per day – was four times greater than in 2010. Although the recent crisis in Europe has dominated headlines, and is reflected in the risk being considered most likely in that region (see Figure 3), the challenge is global with most regions affected (see Figure 1.3).
Three factors increase the risks posed by involuntary migration. First, people stay in host countries longer than they used to. The average duration of displacement lengthened from nine years in the 1980s to 20 years by the mid-2000s.19 Fewer than one in 40 conflicts is now resolved within three years, and more than 80% last for more than 10 years.
The longer people stay away from their home countries, the harder it is to return: often they have lost their livelihoods, family ties and physical property; furthermore, property rights issues for returning refugees can be complex. Protracted refugee situations become even more difficult when refugees are granted only limited socio-economic rights and opportunities, limiting their scope to reclaim livelihoods and dignity.
The lack of effective integration policies in most countries (see Box 1.3 for an example) can lead to the formation of ghettos or isolated communities on the margins of society, ripe for frustration and vulnerable to disenchantment and even radicalization. In Europe, the rapid inflow of migrants in 2015 challenged local financial and absorption capacities and exacerbated the trend towards polarization of societies and the political spectrum, which in turn undermined the efficiency of European governance structures.
Second, the global humanitarian architecture is not able to effectively respond to today’s challenges. Many countries, including some of Syria’s neighbours, have either not signed the Geneva Convention governing the status of refugees, or do not uphold it because there is no enforcement mechanism. Without formal refugee status, refugees can find it harder to access formal employment, social assistance or travel documents.
The institutional architecture for refugees focuses on providing a short-term response to people displaced by conflict and violence. It assumes refugees will settle in camps and primarily need humanitarian assistance, whereas most now settle in urban areas20 – where humanitarian actors have not yet developed well-functioning operating models – and primarily need resilience building. Moreover, the Geneva Convention does not cover environmental migrants, whose numbers are expected to rise for reasons explored above.
Third, most forced migrants move to other developing countries, where social and governance systems may already be weak or likely to fail (see Figure 3). In 2014, 86% of refugees lived in developing countries and about 12% in least-developed countries. In emerging economies, resource constraints can be significant: the UN estimates the cost of housing Syrian refugees in Jordan to be over 7% of Jordanian GDP.21
Figure 1.3: Global Displacement Hotspots, 2014
Source: UNHCR 2015b, p. 3. Note: A “hotspot” is defined as a country or area that has been suffering from conflict-related displacement flows during the reporting period.
All these factors, if unaddressed, can fuel risks in host and destination countries. Although research on the economic effects of refugee inflows is limited, it suggests that refugees can make a positive contribution to the host country’s economy through increased demand, inflows of remittances, promoting the use of technology and engaging in international trade.22 In advanced, ageing economies, incoming refugees can contribute to keeping aggregate demand high and the workforce stable.
Multistakeholder approaches that include local business communities can contribute both to mitigating risks that could emerge from large-scale involuntary migration and to building resilience in transit countries and countries of destination. Measures to consider include work permits and access to jobs, skills recognition and training, and access to schools and public health services. At the same time, at the global level, the development community could help by focusing more strongly on building resilience and helping refugees to transition into self-reliance. This will be even more important in light of the slow and unstable growth the world is currently experiencing, which may further limit countries’ absorptive capacities.
Box 1.3: Refugees in Malaysia
Since the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya, a stateless ethnic and religious minority from Myanmar, have sought asylum in nearby countries, including Bangladesh, Thailand and Malaysia. In recent years, an increasing number of Rohingya people have fled by boat: 25,000 people departed from the Bay of Bengal just in the first quarter of 2015. Over 50,000 Rohingya refugees are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia,1 with thousands more unregistered. The situation in Malaysia is at once a protracted refugee situation – with multiple generations of refugees, some of whom have achieved moderate de facto integration – and a humanitarian crisis marked by a steady influx of emaciated and traumatized asylum-seekers.
The legal status of refugees in Malaysia is tenuous: the country has not ratified key international agreements (most notably the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol), and it lacks a legal and administrative framework for responding to refugees. While the UNHCR has primary responsibility for refugees – including registration and documentation – there are significant gaps in protection and assistance. Refugees cannot attend Malaysian schools, face barriers accessing healthcare, and confront a range of security and protection risks, including detention.
Despite these challenges, refugees invariably show a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit, undertaking formal and informal work to support themselves and their families, at restaurants and retail shops, schools, factories and farms, operating their own small businesses, cleaning, collecting goods to recycle and working in skilled professions, for instance as electricians. Specific examples include refugees opening tea shops with the help of Malaysian acquaintances, opening grocery shops that serve as meeting places for other refugees, and opening home day care for Malaysian children in the neighbourhood. However, restrictions prohibiting them from undertaking employment legally mean that most resort to difficult jobs for low pay, and their illegal status leaves them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Rohingya refugees seek to improve their lives and livelihoods over the course of protracted displacement in various ways. They adopt skills and techniques – such as learning the local language and negotiating with authorities – to help them secure employment and make their way. Contrary to the widespread perception that refugees are a burden for the country of asylum, only a small proportion of refugees in Malaysia receive formal assistance from non-governmental organizations or the UNHCR; instead, most find innovative, albeit challenging, ways to support themselves and their families. They rely primarily on support from other refugees, community associations, and members of the host population to manage shocks, find work, overcome bureaucratic barriers and gain access to institutions. In the absence of formal social protection and services, Rohingya refugees have begun to develop their own: refugee-run community organizations, for example, register members, issue marriage certificates, operate convalescent shelters and help refugees find work.
Although it is important to recognize what refugees can do for themselves, the livelihoods of even the most successful are precarious. Many have relevant and transferable skills and a genuine desire to bring something to the communities in which they live, yet there is a marked dissonance between what refugees stand to contribute and the restrictive policies that limit their ability to do so. Addressing this gap requires a shift away from seeing refugees as passive victims or recipients of assistance or goods to understanding them as active agents pursuing lives and livelihoods in an extremely challenging environment, and in doing so contributing to the countries where they seek asylum.