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Focus Politics

Refugee Crisis: A Global Examination

Rachel Elliott January 15, 2018

Myanmar

The Rohingya people are a Muslim ethnic minority group that has been living in western Myanmar for centuries. They speak their own language and comprise nearly one-third of the country’s population. Despite their long history in the country, discrimination against them is no new concept. Under British rule, the Rohingya were seen as immigrant-laborers from neighboring countries, rather than citizens of what was Burma. This perception remained prevalent even after the country gained its independence. The Rohingya are not recognized as citizens of their own country.

There has been ongoing violence between Rohingya militants and Rakhine Buddhists in the past several years, but things escalated in August when the militants attacked government forces. In response, the Burmese military began a campaign to clear the area of the Rohingya people. The most recent numbers by UNHCR indicate that 650,000 Rohingya people have fled the country to Bangladesh, where over 300,000 are already living. Reports from the refugees describe rape and massacre. The military has been burning the land to erase evidence of the Rohingya in the country, citing even their existence as “fake news.” In November, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson officially called the violence in the Rakhine state, “ethnic cleansing.” Later that same month, Pope Francis embarked on a trip to both Myanmar and Bangladesh where he avoided using the term Rohingya within the former’s borders but still urged the two countries to end the refugee situation.

The government of Myanmar was late in responding to the crisis. State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has been widely criticized for not addressing the humanitarian crisis earlier considering she is a Nobel Peace Prize winner. In response to the worldwide attention the country is receiving, the government announced an agreement with Bangladesh in late November to allow the refugees to return to their home country. In response to a Rohingya militant attack in early January, U Zaw Htay, spokesperson for Aung San Suu Kyi, reasserted that repatriation would begin January 23 and that the militants are only looking to derail this effort. The process to which this will function remains to be seen.

Syria

The Syrian refugee crisis broke out in March 2011 with the start of a civil war that quickly escalated with Russian, American, and European Union involvement. The whole conflict began when various rebel groups sought to end the reign of the current president, Bashar al-Assad, and democratize the country. ISIS quickly gained ground in the divided and war-torn country. Between the different forces tangled in the conflict, over 5 million of the Syrian people have fled the country, 6.5 million have been internally displaced, an estimated 400,000+ have been killed, and those who stay have often suffered from conditions like malnutrition.

But where are these refugees going? Most have stayed in the Middle East. Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq are the top destinations. However, several of these countries have closed their borders to refugees except for special cases such as medical emergencies. At the height of the crisis, 1.3 million Syrian refugees requested relocation in Europe, though this number has declined since. The U.S. took in 18,000 Syrians between October 2011 and January 2017 under President Obama. President Trump’s travel ban initially suspended the US Refugee Admissions program for 120 days and indefinitely suspended entrance for Syrian refugees. In October, the ban was lifted, but the restrictions to enter were far steeper than before. Refugees from Syria, as well as other countries, were to be let in on a case-by-case basis. Reuters reported that despite lifting the ban, the number of refugees entering the U.S. plummeted from 587 in the five weeks before to 15 in the five weeks following. The ban has been highly contested, but the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional earlier this month.

Going forward, the main concern with Syrian refugees is to ensure their safety and health in the locations they have fled to. The UN Refugee Agency also announced December 12th that they intend to launch a new plan for the coming years entitled the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan. The proposal unites 270 NGO and UN organizations to address problems endured by the refugees such as health, lack of education, income generation, food, and social protection. Though ISIS has been defeated in Syria, the civil war still rages on and the question of what to do with the millions of Syrian refugees worldwide has not been answered.

Venezuela

Venezuela, though its fleeing citizens are not officially considered refugees, is on the cusp of becoming the next huge refugee crisis. The country is currently in the midst of an economic crisis, despite its massive oil reserves, as well as a political crisis. President Maduro has been accused by the opposition party to be consolidating power and becoming an authoritarian leader. This took place over the course of several years but came to a head when the Venezuelan Supreme Court, in partnership with the president, ruled to take over the opposition-led Congress powers in March. The country is also facing an increasing and alarming inflation rate. The political and economic crises have left little to the people; medicine and food are running out and poverty and crime are at record high levels. President Maduro has done little to address these problems, often accusing the opposition of colluding with foreign powers like the U.S.

Since former President Hugo Chávez took power in 1999, 2 million Venezuelans have left. Colombia, Brazil, and Panama are the top destinations for them to escape to. (Venezuela is one of the banned countries to the U.S., so few are going there.) In previous years, most of the migrants were trained professionals, able to find jobs in other Latin American countries. Now, the situation has become so dire that even those who will likely face hardship and poverty abroad are abandoning Venezuela.

In response, international governments have denounced Maduro’s reign. The EU passed an arms embargo last month in hopes of encouraging democracy as well as created an outline of future sanctions on the country. Latin America has been divided on the crisis. While Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Columbia (as well as Canada) have denounced the “breakdown of democratic order”, Cuba, Bolivia, and Ecuador have declared their support for Maduro.  President Trump, in his speech to the UN in September, declared that the U.S. would impose sanctions on the socialist Maduro regime. These foreign threats have done little to alleviate the crisis or bring the president to heel; his party swept the recent elections and he has barred opposition candidates from running in next year’s election.