Five million people have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February, while 7.7 million have been internally displaced – a figure equivalent to 18 per cent of the entire population. Given the possibility that the war could escalate into open conflict between Nato and Russia, it is understandable that the sight of cities being reduced to rubble and reports of atrocities continue to take up global attention.
The plight of Ukrainians should not, however, mean that others are now forgotten. The 13 million Syrians who have been displaced by the civil war, the 6 million Afghans who have fled conflict, violence and persecution over the years, and the 900,000 Rohingya who live in the world’s biggest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, might justifiably wonder if western audiences preferred to concentrate on blue-eyed, Christian Europeans than those with darker skins and different faiths.
World Refugee Day, which falls next Monday, is meant to be a corrective to that. Organised by UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, it is a time to remember that at the end of 2020, 82.4 million people were forcibly displaced. Of those, 20.7 million were refugees formally recognised under UNHCR’s mandate, 5.7 million were Palestinian refugees under the mandate of UNRWA, another UN agency, 48 million were internally displaced in their own countries, 4.1 million were asylum-seekers and 3.9 million were Venezuelans displaced abroad.
Some of these terms have precise meanings – “refugee” is defined by a 1951 convention as someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. Refugees also have the right to seek safe asylum and the right not to be forcibly returned to a place where they would face danger.
But whether someone has been formally recognised as a refugee or an asylum seeker doesn’t necessarily make them any more deserving than an internally displaced person in Eritrea, South Sudan or the countries mentioned above. All merit our compassion and attention, as well as our recognition that, but for an accident of birth, they could be us.
Perhaps it is difficult to keep so many different groups of people permanently at the forefront of our minds. Maybe we do occasionally need to be shocked out of complacency by images such as that of Alan Kurdi, the two-year-old boy who was found drowned on a Mediterranean beach in 2015.
Given that a former president of the UN Security Council, Kishore Mahbubani, once estimated that the whole world could live in a space the size of South Africa if we all adopted the same population density and living conditions as Singapore, creating shelter for 82 million people should really not be an insurmountable challenge if the global will was there.
Some activists believe that the current concentration on Ukrainian refugees, more or less to the exclusion of most others, is not just a matter of compassion fatigue. Dr Hartini Zainuddin, a Malaysian who helps marginalised children and has also worked for both UNHCR and UNRWA, thinks that there is discrimination involved, too.
“Who gets talked about more, how long the crisis has been going on, the colour of their skin and, frankly, race and religion” are all factors, she tells me.
But perhaps the biggest fear when it comes to the reluctance of wealthy and middle income countries to letting displaced people have a new start and find a new home within their borders is that the cost will be too high, and that the incomers will stretch housing, healthcare and educational resources to breaking point.
Of course, there are initial costs to taking in refugees, and all immigration, of whatever kind, has to be managed. But study after study has shown that even if you ignore issues such as basic human solidarity and the moral obligation to help countries with displacement crises that your wars of choice may have caused, the cold calculation is this: refugees bring economic benefits to their host countries.
In 2017, the US National Bureau of Economic Research published a paper that worked out that once refugees who entered the country as adults had been there for 20 years, they had paid on average $21,000 more in taxes than they had received in benefits over the same period. A 2019 report by the Centre for Policy Development in Australia found that refugees were nearly twice as likely to be entrepreneurs as the country’s taxpayers as a whole. The authors proposed launching 1,000 new refugee-run businesses each year, which they said “could yield $98 million in annual economic and fiscal gains. Within ten years, the boost to the economy could be nearly $1 billion a year”.
Refugees can fill labour shortages, especially as they are often more willing to carry out what are sometimes called 4D jobs – ones that are dirty, difficult, dangerous and dull. Philippe Legrain of the London School of Economics argues that they can bring a “dynamism dividend”, writing that “Sergey Brin, who arrived in the US as a child refugee from the Soviet Union, co-founded Google, now America’s second most valuable company”.
Mr Legrain also points to a “deftness dividend” with refugees also frequently bringing high skills. When foreign qualifications are not recognised, he points out that it costs £25,000 to train a refugee doctor to practise in the UK, a tenth of the cost of a new British one”.
In short, taking a welcoming approach to refugees is not only a moral and a legal obligation, it is also good for the economy – and that is not even to mention the benefits to cultural diversity and knowledge. So next Monday, think of the displaced tens of millions not just as people to be helped and made secure in their own countries if at all possible, but as the co-workers, friends and family members they could also become. As UNHCR puts it, the day “celebrates the strength and courage” of refugees so that they “can not only survive but also thrive”.