Growing numbers of countries are rejecting today’s refugee realities. With closed borders, fears of being flooded by migrants, political objections and concerns about terrorism, many nations view refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons as somebody else’s problem.
Rather than genuinely attempting to resolve refugee issues, governments have largely shifted the responsibilities to international agencies, which often find themselves broke and failing, non-governmental organizations and charities. Moreover, most refugees and those seeking asylum are concentrated in camps in neighboring countries, typically far away from the governments and public of wealthy developed countries.
In addition to not directly addressing today’s refugee problems, governments are not preparing to address the potentially even larger numbers of refugees, asylum seekers and unauthorized migrants of tomorrow. Government projections for the years ahead often assume the levels of the past or declines in numbers of refugees, asylum seekers and unauthorized migrants in the future.
The number of people of concern worldwide in 2021 is estimated at 100 million, which is likely to be an underestimate of the actual people at risk. That number has doubled since 2010 and is at a historic high. About half of them are internally displaced persons (IDPs) and more than a third are refugees and asylum seekers.
At the end of 2020, there were close to 26 million refugees, more than double the figure in 2000. Also, there were more than 4 million asylum seekers worldwide, a four-fold increase over the level a decade earlier.
Increases in the numbers of people seeking asylum have been even greater in some countries. For example, between 2008 and 2018 the numbers of new asylum requests jumped six-fold in the U.S., seven-fold in Germany and 12-fold in Spain.
In fiscal 2021, America expects to receive more than 300,000 asylum claimants and refugees, with the Biden administration having proposed resettling up to 15,000 refugees. The backlog of asylum seekers awaiting adjudication is more than 1.1 million and the process can take years to conclude. The situation is further complicated by little effective follow-up to denied asylum claims and those residing unlawfully in the country.
The proposed U.S resettlement figures are certain to be adjusted substantially upward as America is now offering tens of thousands of special immigrant visas (SIV) and refugee status to Afghans fleeing the country. While some are against admitting large numbers of Afghan migrants and refugees as it might expose the country to dangerous foreigners, chain migration and additional costs to U.S. taxpayers, others have called on America to accept substantially higher numbers of Afghans.
A handful of countries, including Canada and the United Kingdom, are prepared to accept large numbers of Afghan refugees. However, many countries, including Australia, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and most European countries, are not planning to accept large numbers of additional refugees.
In recent years, especially following the arrival of more than a million asylum seekers to Europe beginning in 2015, many European countries have become increasingly hostile to migrants and asylum-seekers. In particular, those nations have experienced a rise of anti-immigrant political movements, public frustration over the loss of border controls, and concerns over cultural integrity, public safety and national security.
Today’s world consists of nearly 8 billion inhabitants with unbalanced wealth and resources, violence, civil conflict, persecution, human rights abuse and very different demographic trends. Given those global conditions, the numbers of refugees, asylum seekers, IDPs and unauthorized migrants will likely be substantially higher in the near future.
It is often difficult to differentiate people genuinely seeking asylum from migrants seeking opportunities in developed countries, which contributes to eroding support for the right to seek asylum. However, even if most asylum seekers were legitimate, their large and swelling numbers pose problems for host countries. For example, the Biden administration recently declared that the growing numbers of migrants entering the country’s southern border are unsustainable.
The refugee situation is further compounded by climate change and environmental degradation. The sixth report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, noted the expected devastating effects of climate change over the coming decades on vulnerable populations, especially those located in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In addition, the United Nations Human Rights Committee said in a recent ruling that those fleeing their native countries due to the effects of climate crisis in future years may not be forced to return if their lives are in danger.
The possible number of climate “refugees” or migrants by 2050 spans broadband, ranging from many millions to a billion, with 200 million being a widely cited estimate. Such large numbers will overwhelm the abilities and willingness of most nations to accept environmentally induced migrants.
Increasingly countries are rejecting today’s refugee realities and maintaining that the refugee crisis is somebody else‘s problem, with some political leaders depicting refugees and asylum seekers as a burden and threat, and limiting admissions. That strategy, however, does little to address the rapidly growing numbers of refugees, asylum seekers and other displaced persons, who are desperately searching for relief, a haven and a promising future.
Joseph Chamie is an international consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, "Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters."