Understanding the Global Refugee Crisis: A Tale of 3 Myths

A Rohingya refugee looks at the view from a hill at Palong Khali refugee camp near Cox's Bazar

The refugee problem is universal and growing; it needs to be addressed clearly.

According to UN sources, we are witnessing these days the largest refugee crisis since World War II, as approximately 65 million refugees roam the planet in search of a safe haven and a respite from bedlam. Their massive relocation sends tremors across continents fomenting a “refugee crisis,” and fueling the politics of fear across the globe. I recently returned from a visit to Uganda where I attended an outstanding workshop on refugees organized by Communities Engaging with Difference and Religion (CEDAR), and visited a South Sudan refugee settlement in Northern Uganda. This experience profoundly altered the way I think about the refugee predicament and its ramifications for societies worldwide. The problem is complex and refractory to simplistic generalizations. Three prevalent myths about refugees particularly stand out: That refugees are all powerless and in need of assistance, that the refugee status is short term, and that the refugee issue is primarily the (quasi) legal one of their so-called “human rights.”

Who is a Refugee?

The term ‘refugees’ conjures up the image of destitute victims, escapees from great harm with nary a proverbial “shirt on their back,” hence completely dependent on outside help for survival. Though many refugees match that description, some decidedly do not. According to the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee “is someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” This umbrella definition covers not only destitute refugees but also ones who upon entry into the host country possess substantial military, political and/or economic powers. In the late 1960s, Palestinian refugees into Jordan included heavily armed militias like the Fatah. These began to control the civil life in Jordan, creating there a virtual “state within a state.”  They set up checkpoints at road blocks, illegally levied taxes and publicly humiliated the Jordanian military and police. This came to a crushing end in 1970 with Jordan’s King Hussein declaring martial law and defeating the militias in heavy fighting in which reputedly 3,500 Palestinians lost their lives (an event widely known as the Black September).

Tutsi refugees in Uganda formed a well-trained rebel army that in 1986 brought to power the present Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni. And in 1994 the same rebel army led by Paul Kagame that subsequently morphed into the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) ended the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda and instated Kagame as president. Tutsi refugees in Uganda were often well-to-do, having arrived in the country with their cattle. And wealthy Iraqi refugees in Jordan considerably drove up the real estate prices and the costs of daily living more generally.

In short, the refugee predicament hardly lends itself to a cookie-cutter approach. All refugees aren’t cut of the same cloth. Like any group of people, they vary in their abilities, resources and motivations. Though the adverse circumstances of their plight may particularly stand out—understanding their ultimate impact in realms of politics, economy and psychology requires a more nuanced approach, one that takes their differences into account.

Once a Refugee?

A common assumption about refugees is that their status is temporary and that sooner rather than later they will go back home. This presumption is questionable on both common sense and factual grounds. The refugees’ awaited departure from their host countries is predicated on the expectation that the circumstances that drove them away in the first place exist no longer. Very often this is not the case; if at all, tranquility may return to the refugees’ native land only after decades of strife. By that time, many refugees would have adjusted, one way or another, to conditions in the host country, their children would have been born and raised there, and would have known no other (social, political and cultural) reality than that which prevails there. Their return to the country of origin would entail serious uprooting and readjustment even if and when conditions for their return (i.e., peace and reconciliation) became favorable.