One in every 122 humans living on the planet is a refugee, an internally displaced person, or an asylum-seeker. In 2014, conflict and persecution forced a staggering 42,500 persons per day to leave their homes and seek protection elsewhere, resulting in 59.5 million total refugees worldwide. According to the UN refugee agency’s 2014 report, developing countries hosted 86% of these refugees. Developed countries, such as the U.S. and those in Europe, host only 14% of the world’s total share of refugees. 90% of refugees go to a country with a contiguous border (thus explaining the concentration of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq). The number of women and children seeking safety in Europe has overtaken the number of men for the first time since the migrant crisis began, according to figures released by Unicef. About six in 10 people seeking asylum in Gevgelija on the Macedonia border with Greece in January were women or children. Last June, children made up one in 10 people registering their intent to seek asylum. That proportion has now increased to more than one in three. Unicef also says a third of those attempting the dangerous sea crossing between Greece and Turkey are children. Over that period men have gone down from between 73% and 79% of asylum seekers to 41%.
Populist and nationalist leaders routinely play to public anxieties about refugees as “lazy opportunists,” “burdens,” “criminals,” or “terrorists” in response to today’s refugee crisis. Mainstream politicians of all stripes calling for increased border controls, detention centers, and the temporary suspension of visa and asylum applications.
Today’s refugees are mainly a collection of people who have chosen the only available non-violent pathway out of conflict. Today’s 60 million refugees have said no to violence, no to victimization, and no to helplessness at the same time. The decision to flee to strange and often unwelcoming foreign lands as a refugee is not a light one. It involves taking significant risks, including the risk of death. 3,735 refugees were dead or missing at sea while seeking refuge in Europe in 2015. Contrary to contemporary discourse, being a refugee ought to be synonymous with non-violence and courage. They made a life-altering, non-violent choice to act for themselves in a way that cast them and their families into uncertain futures.
It is essential for people of good faith everywhere to resist the urge to ascribe nefarious motivations to the millions of people seeking haven in their countries, because of the violent or criminal actions of a few. The latter group does not represent refugees in general. It is inevitable that a handful of people will cynically exploit the global movement of refugees to pursue their own criminal or ideological aims—either by concealing themselves in the masses to cross borders to commit violent acts abroad, by taking advantage of the political polarization of migration politics to promote their own agendas, or by extorting these people for their own criminal purposes. Among any population this size, there will be criminal activity here and there, refugee or not. On average the threat of violence against the refugee is much greater than the threat of violence by the refugee. Shunning them, detaining them as if they were criminals, or deporting them to war-torn environments sends a message that non-violent choices are punished—and that submitting to victimization or turning to violence are the only choices left.
Socialists call for compassion and respect not dehumanization and exclusion.