Zelenskyj: Mines after the Russian withdrawal make Kyiv unsafe

DUBAI: They have become a sign of our times: long lines of people in need at border crossings, carrying what few belongings they could grab before hastily leaving their homes and livelihoods. Hunger gnaws at their dignity while their eyes beg for mercy, but they must do exactly as ordered by listless border guards tasked with maintaining order.

Almost seven years after a record number of refugees and migrants sparked a crisis in the European Union, the spectacle of a mass exodus of people from Ukraine has brought the global refugee crisis to the fore. It has also led to accusations of double standards and racial discrimination in the embrace of war-displaced civilians in Europe.

Since February 24, more than 4.1 million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries, creating the sixth largest refugee influx in more than 60 years, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of UN data.

These Ukrainians, taken in by Poland, Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, Russia and Belarus, are part of a human tide of more than 10 million people, making up more than a quarter of Ukraine’s pre-war population believed to be they are have fled their homes.

UN agencies are scrambling to find funds and resources to house, feed and treat wounded and traumatized Ukrainian refugees, while hoping a peace deal can be reached quickly so they can return home safely.

But even the greatest refugee crises of modern times cannot hide the astounding magnitude of the problem on a global scale. According to the UN, at least 84 million people are currently fleeing the world, almost half of them children.

If the war in Ukraine drags on with no clear end, the civilians displaced from their homes by the fighting could be just a statistic, representing just a small fraction of the total number of people around the world who have nowhere to go, in many cases even decades later.

These victims of conflict are residents of refugee camps in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, South America and southern Europe who are unable to return home or move to a new country. What were originally intended as temporary shelters have, over time, become permanent settlements that have been taken over by host communities.

In the Middle East and Central Asia, there has been little progress in repatriating or resettling the millions who have fled major conflicts over the past 20 years.

Poland has taken in more than 2 million people from Ukraine since the conflict broke out, as refugees made the journey west despite the freezing cold and long queues. (AFP)

The 2003 US invasion of Iraq, which ousted dictator Saddam Hussein, sparked a deadly Sunni insurgency and sectarian war in 2014 that helped Daesh rise. The resulting violence and insecurity forced millions of Iraqis – ethnic Arabs, Kurds and other minorities – from their homes.

More than 260,000 fled Iraq and another 3 million were internally displaced during this period. Many of those who remained in the country settled in camps or informal settlements in urban areas of northern Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR estimates that more than 4.1 million Iraqis, about 15 percent of the country’s post-war population, remain in need of some form of protection or humanitarian assistance years after Daesh’s territorial defeat in late 2017.

The conflict spread to neighboring Syria, where an uprising against Bashar Assad’s regime had already sparked an exodus of civilians to Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, three countries where most of them still live to this day.

Since 2011, more than half of Syria’s 22 million pre-war residents have been forced to move, many more than once. An estimated 6.7 million Syrians remain internally displaced.

Large numbers have taken refuge in Idlib, a fickle, rebel-held corner of the north-west under routine regime and Russian bombardment.

According to the United Nations, at least 84 million people are currently fleeing the world, almost half of them children. (AFP)

Hajj Hassan, originally from the Syrian region of Homs, was first expelled in 2012 and then again in 2016. The 62-year-old has been in Idlib since then. “We lost everything in 2012,” he told Arab News.

“Not a single building remained standing. I moved again and the bombardment followed. I now live in the most miserable place in the world. I am a refugee in my own country.”

Syrian children have borne the brunt of the displacement as they have faced violence, shock, trauma, hunger and harsh weather conditions. Many had to grow up in exile, often separated from their families, where they were subjected to violence, forced early marriage, recruitment by armed groups, exploitation and psychological distress.

Since the collapse of the internationally recognized government in Kabul last August, Afghanistan has faced humanitarian challenges made worse by cuts in foreign aid, international trade and the nature of the Taliban government.

Victims of civil war, insurgency, natural disasters, poverty and food insecurity over the past 40 years, Afghans now make up one of the world’s largest refugee populations, with at least 2.5 million UN-registered refugees, most of them in neighboring Iran, Pakistan.

Since February 24, more than 4.1 million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries, making it the sixth-largest influx of refugees in over 60 years. (AFP)

Add to this the humanitarian crises in Yemen, Myanmar and North African countries, and the refugee numbers seem too large for a war-weary world and an overwhelmed NGO community.

Meanwhile, aid agencies in the Middle East have struggled to secure donor funds to support projects in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. “Compassion fatigue” threatens the viability of health and education programs in all three countries, senior aid workers say.

“With Ukraine, Yemen will now be even less of a focus than before. It may be time to do something else,” a Middle East development worker told Arab News. “I can’t deal with the crushing blow that would walk away if the money ran out, so I might as well go first.”

One thing the Ukraine war has in common with recent conflicts in the Middle East is the important role neighboring countries play in humanitarian efforts.

Just like the countries bordering Syria, which have taken in millions of refugees over the past decade, Eastern European nations that have accepted that displaced Ukrainians are likely to need outside help to deal with increased population pressures, especially if the invasion war becomes a long, grueling invasion.

Lebanon currently hosts about 850,000 of the Syrians displaced by the civil war, Jordan another 600,000 and Turkey more than 3 million. But burdened by their own socio-economic problems and budgetary difficulties, these countries are showing a growing reluctance to shoulder the burden while attempting to push some refugees back into Syria.

Migrants wait to be rescued by members of the NGO Proactiva Open Arms in the Mediterranean Sea, some 12 nautical miles north of Libya. (AFP)

Many of those who returned to their homes in the war-torn country were quickly drafted into the national army or crushed by mafia-like groups for protection.

While the influx of Ukrainians has prompted a wave of generosity from European governments, the continent’s unified welcome stands in stark contrast to the tepid welcome Syrian refugees received, not to mention the open hostility towards migrants attempting to enter Belarus -To cross Poland border late last year.

In fact, it seems hard to believe that just a few months ago Poland began building a $380 million wall along its border with Belarus to seal off thousands of non-European refugees seeking asylum in the EU.

“The situation of non-Ukrainian refugees at the borders, especially now, is terrible. It was horrifying to watch,” Nadine Kheshen, a Lebanon-based human rights lawyer, told Arab News.

“On the one hand, it’s nice to see how Ukrainians are welcomed with open arms. On the other hand, it is heartbreaking to see how Syrian, Afghan, Kurdish, Iraqi and other refugees are treated at the Polish border.”

Kheshen’s opinion is shared by Nadim Houry, executive director of the Paris-based think tank Arab Reform Initiative. “There is undoubtedly a kind of double standard in the way refugees are treated,” he told Arab News. “I would say that this is to be condemned, especially in relation to the Afghan refugees in Europe. People fleeing violence should be welcomed.”

Rohingya refugee children play in Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia on March 27. (AFP)

Although the needs of refugees are the same no matter where they come from, it seems that the nature of the conflict they are fleeing could very well determine how long they are displaced or whether they can return at all.

“There is a big difference between Ukraine and Syria, for example,” Houry said. “In the case of Ukraine, people are fleeing from an external aggressor. The moment the external attacker stops, people feel safe coming back. In Syria, however, people were mainly fleeing the Syrian regime.

“The same thing happened between Israel and Lebanon in 2006. They had massive displacements, but when the Israelis stopped, the Lebanese went back to their cities.”

Although Eastern and Central European countries have been quick to welcome the millions of Ukrainians arriving on their soil, there are concerns that the newcomers may ultimately face life as permanent refugees. Many might eventually exceed their reception.

“We are now seeing a high level of support and welcome from neighboring countries and a high level of solidarity,” Houry told Arab News. “However, some countries like Moldova and Poland will need support to avoid being overwhelmed.

“People tend to forget the start of the conflict in Syria. Syrian refugees were generally welcomed. But then that changed as the conflict raged on.”

The European show of solidarity with people fleeing the war in Ukraine has been impressive so far. But given that the invasion is only entering its fifth week, it might be early days.

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