History's Most Troubling Chapter Refugees and the Human Journey

by Glen Pearson

It seems like every time we see a list of the greatest problems faced by our troubled world that the refugee challenge is repeatedly positioned in the top five. At no time since World War Two has the subject dominated us in such a fashion. Yet we frequently fail to understand how the narrative of people moving across the planet in fear of their lives has been developing, with each generation facing unique hurdles and implementing new solutions.

Take a look at the chart above, provided by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and via the good folks at VOX. It’s staggering and a revealing glimpse as to why so many think the world is a deeply troubled place. Conflict, persecution and political designs have driven more people – 64 million and counting – from their homes than at any other time in history. Of that number, 40 million are displaced people and almost 25 million are refugees.

The term “refugee” was already commonly used by the late-18th century. The French Constitution made it a legal classification in 1793. The issue became more pressing in the 1800s, but by the 20th century it was rapidly gaining global prominence. Hundreds of thousands fled the Soviet Union due to violence and persecution in the early part of the century. Following World War One, millions were on move as the map of Europe was being redrawn. A similar pattern emerged following the Second World War. The partition of India in 1947 resulted in some 10-12 million people displaced. The following year, after Israel achieved statehood, 700,000 Palestinians fled to other nations.

Things got so bad that in December 1950 the phenomenon of refugees became so pronounced that the United Nations established the UNHCR to coordinate a global response. Its mandate was designed to last for only three years, but global developments took varying turns when new conflicts in Africa produced ever more movements of people fleeing their homelands. The UNHCR mandate was extended. With the fall of Vietnam in the 1970s, one million more refugees began migrating elsewhere.

But this last decade has been unlike anything seen or experienced historically. Today 1 in every 113 people on earth is either a refugee, internally displaced (IDP), or seeking asylum, and more than half of these are children.

News coverage sometimes gives the impression that Europe is where everyone is trying to escape to, but that is misleading. The top five host countries for refugees aren’t in Europe, but in places like Turkey and Lebanon. Nevertheless, Europe has become the target destination of some one million refugees.

All this forms a portion of the refugee narrative. It winds its way throughout the decades, in varying emanations, and forming direct challenges. Far from isolated incidents, the emergence of the refugee phenomenon links history in unusual ways and forms something of a backdrop for the challenges of each generation. That story is told effectively in this UNHCR video:

The tendency has always been there to portray refugees or displaced people as those who leave of their own volition for greener pastures. The reality is much different, as millions are forcibly expelled from their ancestral homes, leaving them with two choices: cross borders or stay and face imminent death. This puts a different spin on the reasons why so many are migrating across the globe: they were forced.

Patrick Kingsley, in his moving book on the European refugee crisis, notes the following:

“The choice is not between the current crisis and blissful isolation. The choice is between the current crisis and an orderly, managed system of mass migration. You can have one or the other. There is no easy middle ground”

Currently, that “orderly, managed system” has yet to be refined and implemented. In the meantime, the sheer numbers of families and individuals traversing the globe is a clear sign that our world is rapidly becoming a borderless one. It is also becoming more troubling with each passing year. What we face at present is merely the most recent episode of humanity's troubling journey towards peace and security.

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Glen Pearson
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Photo credits: UNICEF

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