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Refugee crisis: What we can learn from history?

Tragically, today's refugee crisis is not a new state-of-affairs – can we learn from the past?
Tragically, today's refugee crisis is not a new state-of-affairs – can we learn from the past?

The refugee crisis has dominated headlines this month – but today's humanitarian disaster is not new. Throughout history, people have been displaced from their homes by war, political turmoil and natural disaster. Today, we look at crises of the past, and consider what we can learn for the future.

Over the next five years, the UK will accept up to 20,000 refugees from Syria. To teach us what to expect and help us to handle the current crisis, we take a brief look at some of recent history’s prominent refugee movements around the world.

After World War II (Europe, post-1945)

  • The end of the war marked beginning of a refugee crisis on an enormous scale. Countless people in Europe had been released from captivity, had to flee their homes, or were forcibly removed
  • Although the transfer of populations was supposed to be implemented humanely, the expulsions were often done in a cruel manner and many were killed during the process
  • Child refugees after the Second World War
    Refugees after the Second World War (Photo: Bild Bundesarchiv, CC-BY-SA 3.0)
    This period saw the creation of several important international refugee laws and organisations that are still in operation today, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)
  • This is also when displaced persons camps were first set up as temporary shelters – known today as refugee camps. The conditions in these areas, however, were far from ideal
  • Efforts at repatriation were often met with resistance, while some countries granted permanent settlement to refugees
  • World Refugee Year (1959–1960) was established to clear the camps, with some success. By the end of 1960, all refugee camps in Europe were closed.

Idi Amin’s Dictatorship (Uganda, 1972)

  • Amin had spread propaganda about Asian communities in Uganda, that they had exploited the local economy (even though many of them had lived in the country for over a century)
  • The military leader gave the Asian minority in Uganda 90 days to leave the country. Around 90,000 Asians – mostly Indians – were forced to leave, over half of whom went to the UK
  • The London borough of Brent received thousands of Ugandan Asian refugees in a matter of weeks. The settled East-African Asian community, local voluntary organisations, and the Brent council worked together to cope with the influx and also presented demands to the government, which included housing, funding for new schools, local health, and community support services. These demands were all met
  • A Rwandan refugee camp in Zaire, 1994
    In 1994, millions of people fled to refugee camps across Rwanda's borders (Photo: CDC, CC-BY-SA 2.0)
    After Amin was overthrown, the expelled Indians were invited back to Uganda. However, most of them did not return

Great Lakes refugee crisis (Rwanda, 1994)

  • After the Rwandan Genocide, over two million people fled to neighbouring countries. Unfortunately, the refugee camps were taken over by militants, which increased conflict in the region
  • These camps were used to launch attacks against the new government in Rwanda and even control humanitarian aid. Many refugees were threatened and murdered
  • As a result, several relief operations pulled out of the area in hopes that the camps would be disarmed – to little avail
  • The crisis prompted these organisations to re-evaluate their existing mandates and procedures.

Iraq war (Iraq, 2003)

  • Refugees have always been an issue for Iraq since its war with Iran, but the numbers have drastically increased since the 2003 invasion by the US and allied forces
  • Millions of Iraqis have left their homes, many of which have left the country to settle in neighbouring ones
  • However, they are living in impoverished communities with little international attention and legal protection. They face unique challenges because they are located in urban centres instead of refugee camps
  • The main problems that these refugees face include the lack of services; psychological trauma from witnessing extreme violence; and the suffering health of children, the elderly, and the disabled
  • Colombian refugees queue for humanitarian help
    Colombian refugees queue for aid. Colombia's conflict has gone on for decades, but receives little media attention
    In 2007, various UN agencies launched an appeal for tens of millions of dollars to help host countries meet the needs of Iraqi refugees.

The Colombian conflict (Colombia, 1964–present)

  • Despite lasting decades and continuing, the Columbian crisis has not attracted nearly enough attention from the international community
  • 10% of the total population have left their homes yet are not actually considered refugees because they haven’t crossed international boundaries. Millions have been “internally displaced”
  • Over 20,000 people have died because of the conflict, in spite of continual rounds of peace talks
  • Doctors without Borders and the UNHCR are working to protect and improve the situation of many IDPs and refugees; however, this remains the world’s longest ongoing conflict.

What can we learn from the crises of the past?

  1. Two of the most fundamental aspects to a smooth transition is: (a) transparency and open communication during the migration process (at all levels); and (b) a continued collaboration between local and international refugee organisations, aid agencies, and governments.
  2. The media plays a very important role in calling attention to the crisis and appealing for aid. The language used is particularly important for shaping nationals’ views on the influx of refugees. What’s important to remember is that these are not “migrants” simply seeking a better life; they are victims who were forced to escape from dangerous and desperate situations.
  3. The conditions of refugee camps need to meet certain standards, especially in terms of sanitation. These sites are not just temporary shelters for the refugees; often people have to live there for years before being repatriated or allowed citizenship in the current country.
  4. Vulnerable groups, such as orphans and disabled people, should be top priority. Funding should be concentrated in basic services such as health care and education. 
  5. When refugees arrive in a foreign country – frightened, alone, and sometimes without knowing the local language – legal security is essential. Strict and consistent refugee protection laws have to be implemented and enforced to safeguard their human rights.
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