Violence never just impacts the soldiers firing the guns—and collateral damage extends far beyond innocents shot in the crossfire.
According to a recent United Nations report, 800,000 people around the world were forced to flee their home countries in 2011 due to violent conflict. According to the same U.N. report, 42.5 million refugees, internally displaced individuals, and asylum seekers are in need of safety and security across the world.
“It’s considered safer in Iraq these days than Syria,” says Kitchen. “That gives you an idea of how bad things are.”
With our planet increasingly feeling the environmental effects of climate change, nations weakened by decades of struggle are now dealing with added environmental nightmares created by global warming: fires, floods, drought and tsunamis. The result is the uprooting of people—people who often have nowhere to go.
“The issue of refugees is multileveled,” Bob Kitchen, director of emergency preparedness and response programs for the humanitarian aid organization International Rescue Committee tells TakePart. “Countries that have poor governance and have experienced conflict are unprepared to handle natural disasters.”
On the eve of World Refugee Day, TakePart spoke with Kitchen about the growing problems of refugeeism and internal displacement across the globe.
Kitchen says that four countries are on the IRC’s permanent refugee watch list: Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines. Sri Lanka is vulnerable due to a prolonged ethnic conflict, Indonesia and the Philippines due to their unprecedented geographic vulnerability to all manner of natural disasters, and Bangladesh due to the imminent threat of rising waters associated with global warming.
For the time being, these four countries are relatively stable.
However, Kitchen laid out five nations that are currently suffering the immediate effects of mass migrations—countries that without global action, will only continue to suffer the downward spiral of displacement in the years to come.
1) Mali—In this landlocked West African country of 14.5 million, 4.6 million people face food insecurity due to an ongoing drought. To make matters worse, Mali is now facing a seemingly inevitable mass civil conflict after ethnic Tuareg fighters working with Islamic militants captured the northern half of the country this past April.
The combination of drought and violence has forced 300,000 people from their homes into neighboring countries or to safer parts of Mali. In the past two weeks alone, the U.N. estimates that 20,000 Malians have fled the country to Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania. The situation is poised to deteriorate further: Mali’s government isn’t likely to allow the northern half of the country to stay in rebel control forever.
“I predict this could get substantially worse when the government launches a counter-offensive in the north,” says Kitchen. “There is no light at the end of the tunnel. Things are only getting drier and more violent.”
2) Yemen—Yemen made plenty of news in 2011 in the United States for being a supposed bastion of Al-Qaeda-backed terrorism. Unmanned U.S. drones have launched aerial attacks within Yemen’s borders accompanied by ground assaults on terrorist outposts by Yemeni government forces.
“The government has taken up the conflict in the south and is making progress,” says Kitchen, “but at the cost of mass displacement of people.”
Fighting has displaced 500,000 people inside Yemen, and 1 million children are suffering from malnutrition. Rooting out Al-Qaeda has taken a heavy toll on the country’s most vulnerable population.
3) Syria—Civil conflict-torn Syria is currently receiving the bulk of humanitarian concern around the world—with good reason. The Syrian government’s push to quell its 2011 Arab Spring uprising has sent 78,000 refugees into Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.
“It’s considered safer in Iraq these days than Syria,” says Kitchen. “That gives you an idea of how bad things are. They are slipping away toward civil war.”
Estimates about the actual number of refugees coming out of Syria are unquestionably low. “The reach of the Syrian security apparatus is substantial,” explains Kitchen, “especially in Lebanon. People want to keep their heads down.”
Registering as a refugee and accepting the assistance that comes with that status is not a low-profile move. So tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Syrian refugees are likely unaccounted for.
Within Syria, political negotiations are stalled, and humanitarian aid is largely blocked. What already is terrible, could soon grow much worse.
“Assad is still not using the full force of his military,” says Kitchen. “We’re very worried the government will bring out its arsenal.”
4) Democratic Republic of Congo—After a period of relative military calm in recent years, Democratic Republic of Congo is facing new violence from a rebel group called M23—lead by a man who calls himself “The Terminator.”
The group has launched a series of violent attacks from the mountains, where the government is having a difficult time trying to unseat it. In the process, 200,000 people have been forced from their homes—most into neighboring countries, like Uganda.
In addition, the DRC has more than 35,000 “night refugees.”
“These people sleep in Uganda during the night, during the violence,” explains Kitchen, “and then return to their homes to farm during the day.”
It remains to be seen how long these “night refugees” will be able to support themselves without the slaughter following them across the border.
“This violence has regional implications,” says Kitchen.
5) Somalia—The Horn of Africa (Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti and Sudan) is currently suffering from one of the worst droughts in the history of the region. Millions are at risk of starvation.
In Somalia, the effects are especially devastating due to the complete absence of a functional government.
“Somalia unquestionably sees the deepest impact of famine,” says Kitchen. “I’ve had the pleasure/bad luck of leading the IRC response in Mogadishu. This is a city blown to pieces without care for decades. Hundreds of thousands of people live in the streets, facing starvation and cholera. The government has very little capacity to help its own people. It’s a dire environment, and we’re coming up to hunger season.”
The country has 180,000 displaced citizens internally and more than 1 million refugees in Kenya and Ethiopia. Decades of military struggle has left the country’s infrastructure hollowed out and completely incapable of handling repatriation.
“I’ve been in this industry for more than a decade and never seen anything like it,” says Kitchen. “Battles have taken the infrastructure to pieces.”
International humanitarian efforts are keeping people alive in the absence of government aid, but with continued widespread internal violence—Kitchen says headless bodies routinely turn up on the streets—it remains to be seen how long aid workers can safely continue their mission inside Somalia.
“International aid is not guaranteed,” says Kitchen. “Security can substantially restrict the ability to deliver aid to the most vulnerable.”
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