By Ben Norton
Sep 15, 2015
The world is witnessing the largest refugee crisis since the horrors of World War II.
Today there are close to 60 million war refugees, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—“an all-time high as violence and persecution” around the world are on the rise.
The Middle East, North Africa, and Western Asia are particularly hard hit. Millions of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Yemen are fleeing violence and war in their countries.
In all of 2014, approximately 219,000 people tried to cross the Mediterranean to seek asylum in Europe. In just the first eight months of 2015, over 300,000 refugees tried to cross the sea, according to the UNHCR. More than 2,500 died.
Human rights organizations warn the Gulf states, Israel, Iran, and Russia—all of which have taken zero refugees—along with the US, Canada, and Europe—which have taken few—are not doing enough to provide refuge to the asylum-seekers.
CREDIT: Sakis Mitrolidis / AFP
The majority of the refugees are from Syria. More than four million Syrian refugees are registered with the UN. Another seven million have been internally displaced. Over half of the entire population of the country has been uprooted since 2011.
Because Syrians comprise the bulk of refugees, the plights of other refugees have scarcely been reported on. Governments are essentially only considering taking asylum-seekers from war-torn Syria, embroiled for over four years now in intense violence.
The Syrian Civil War has resulted in what is often referred to as “the worst refugee crisis of our generation.” Using statistics from the UN, news reports, and the University of California, Berkeley, Statista details how the Syrian refugee crisis compares to other refugee crises in the past few decades:
In terms of sheer scale, the Syrian refugee crisis is significantly worse than those resulting from the US and Soviet wars in Afghanistan, the Gulf War, the genocide in Rwanda, the NATO bombing of Kosovo, and more.
Credit: Middle East Eye
Most of the refugees from Syria are youths. Middle East Eye reports 51% of Syrian asylum-seekers are under age 18, and 39% are under age 11. In other words, two out of every five Syrian refugees are children under age 11.
The story that brought much of this suffering to the attention of the Western media was that of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian Kurd refugee whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach. The photo of his tiny figure went viral, and has become a symbol of the refugee crisis.
Kurdi’s family say they applied for asylum in Canada, yet the Canadian government denied their application. The immigration ministry says the family’s application “was returned as it was incomplete.”
The crisis has also emboldened racists to be open with their anti-Arab bigotry. German neo-Nazishave attacked refugees and shelters created for asylum-seekers. “Europe responds to desperate refugees with razor wire and racism,” the Washington Post writes.
Here is a guide to the worst refugee crisis since World War II, with information about every country you need to know.
The vast preponderance of Syrian refugees have been taken by Syria’s neighbors.
CREDIT: Mercy Corps
Turkey has taken the most, close to 2 million.
The tiny nation of Lebanon has accepted over 1.1 million Syrian refugees, who now comprise almost one-fifth of its entire population.
Jordan has accepted around 630,000. Approximately one in every 13 people in Jordan is a Syrian refugee.
CREDIT: Forbes / Statista
Lebanon and Jordan now have the most refugees per capita in the world.
In spite of the brutal war being waged inside of its own borders and the growth of ISIS, Iraq has also taken in almost 250,000 Syrian refugees. Most were welcomed by Iraqi Kurdistan, in the north.
The US has fueled the conflicts in all five of the nations from which most refugees are fleeing, and it is directly responsible for the violence in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.
The US’ over a decade-long war in and occupation of Iraq resulted in the deaths of at least a million people, greatly weakened the government, brought al-Qaeda into the country, and led to the rise of ISIS. Over 3.3 million people in Iraq have been displaced because of ISIS.
In Afghanistan, US occupation is ongoing and the war is escalating, in spite of Obama’s constant insistence that it would end by 2014. There are 2.6 million Afghan refugees, according to the UN.
The US-led NATO bombing of Libya destroyed the government, fomenting chaos that led to the rise of ISIS affiliates in northern Africa. Many thousands of Libyans are now fleeing the country, often on dangerous smuggler boats and rafts. The UN estimates there are over 360,000 displaced Libyans.
A coalition of Middle Eastern nations, led by Saudi Arabia, has pummeled Yemen for half a year,leading to the deaths of over 4,500 people. The US has steadfastly backed the coalition, in spite ofhuman rights organizations accusing it of war crimes, including the intentional targeting of civilians and aid buildings. As a result, the UN says there are over 330,000 displaced Yemenis.
CREDIT: Yannis Behrakis / Reuters
In Syria, from which most of the refugees are coming, the US has provided weapons to rebels fighting the government. Since the rise of ISIS, however, the US government has talked much less about toppling Assad, and some have reported “the US and the government of President Bashar al-Assad have even reached an uncomfortable tacit alliance.”
Despite the US role in the Syrian war, it is taken very few refugees. In the over four years of the war, the US government has given asylum to just 1,500 Syrians.
Politicians from both major parties agree the US needs to step up and do its part. Even Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose campaign relies heavily on anti-immigrant racism and xenophobia, said the government should take more Syrian refugees. “I hate the concept of it, but on a humanitarian basis, you have to,” Trump stated.
The Obama administration announced it would take 10,000 refugees. Critics argue this is not nearly adequate enough, pointing out that Germany, which has one-fourth of the US population, plans on taking 800,000 refugees in 2015 alone, 80 times more than the US.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Oman, and Kuwait are by far the richest nations in the region, because of the gargantuan oil reserves they reside on. Yet they have not taken any refugees.
CREDIT: Artist Mahmoud Abbas
The Gulf states have funded rebels in the Syrian war. Wealthy donors from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait have funded many extremists, including those linked to al-Qaeda and ISIS.
Analysts say the Gulf states fear political instability if they accept refugees. All the Gulf nations are authoritarian monarchies in which citizens have little-to-no say about their governance. Moreover, the vast majority of the workforce in the Gulf states—including 99.5% of workers in the UAE—consist of foreigners, largely from South Asia, who are only given temporary residency. An influx of refugees could reinvigorate the protests that shook the nations during the Arab Spring, or could anger the exploited workers who are not granted citizenship.
The refusal of the rich Gulf states which have helped fund the war in Syria to take any refugees led to widespread outrage. Omani artist Salim al-Salami released a painting depicting Gulf men looking over the dead body of three-year-old Syrian Kurd refugee Aylan Kurdi:
A painting by Omani artist Salim al-Salami
Critics have also pointed out hypocrisy in spending and accused Gulf nations of inhumane priorities. For his three-day visit to the US to meet with President Obama, Saudi King Salman booked an entire luxury DC hotel—all 222 rooms, which he had covered in gold, at the cost of $1 million per night. That is to say, Saudi Arabia spent over $3 million just on a hotel, but claims it does not have resources for refugees.
Saudi Arabia also pledged $500 million to help Gaza rebuild after Israel’s summer 2014 attack that left 2,310 dead—over two-thirds of whom were civilians—and more than 100,000 homes damaged or destroyed. Other Gulf states pledged millions to aid Gaza reconstruction efforts as well, yet only a fraction of the money promised by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others was ever delivered.
Egypt has taken more than 130,000 Syrian refugees, yet has not been as welcoming of asylum-seekers as nations like Lebanon or Jordan. In fact, scores of Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees have been detained, and have gone on hunger strike in protest of their detention.
While the photo of Aylan Kurdi went viral, completely unreported in the US media is the fact that an eight-year-old Syrian refugee girl was, in front of her family, shot dead by Egyptian soldiers.
The family was trying to reach Europe by boat when the young child was shot. “My daughter was bleeding to death but they wouldn’t call an ambulance,” the girl’s father told Amnesty International.
Some of the Syrian refugees are themselves Palestinians who were made refugees after the 1947-1948 Nakba, in which Zionist militias ethnically cleansed approximately 80% of historic Palestine in order to create Israel. These asylum-seekers are essentially “double refugees,” and often have nowhere to go.
Israel has refused to take a single refugee.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog called on Netanyahu’s hard-line right-wing government “to act toward receiving refugees from the war in Syria, in addition to the humanitarian efforts it is already making.”
“Jews cannot be indifferent while hundreds of thousands of refugees are looking for safe haven,” Herzog added.
Netanyahu, however, refuses to admit any asylum-seekers, arguing Israel “lacks demographic and geographic depth.” “We must control our borders, against both illegal migrants and terrorism,” the prime minister said.
In fact, the Israeli government is going so far as to build a wall on the Jordanian border to prevent refugees from coming into the country. They plan on connecting the wall with those already built on the Egyptian and Golan Heights borders.
An anti-refugee cartoon in conservative Israeli newspaperMakor Rishon
Journalist David Sheen shared a racist cartoon published by right-wing Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon. The cartoon depicts a drowning Syrian refugee child crying for help while a white European man “drowning” in a crowd of (literally) brown people also cries for help.
Israel has been notoriously harsh in its treatment of refugees, particularly Africans. The Israeli government has granted refugee status to just 0.07% of African asylum seekers. Until recently, nearly two thousand refugees were held in internment camp-like conditions in the Holot detention center. Israeli politicians refer to African refugees as “infiltrators.” Member of Knesset Miri Regev, now Israel’s minister of culture, went so far as to call African asylum-seekers a “cancer”—and a poll found 52% of Jewish Israelis agreed with her.
Iran has not given permanent residency to any Syrian refugees, even though it has for years sent weapons, soldiers, and military advisers into Syria to help the Assad government in its fight against rebels.
President Rohani applauded Europe for taking refugees, and implored it to take more, saying “We are happy that some European countries made positive efforts to help refugees and we hope other European countries that do not have this position compensate on shortcomings.” Yet Iran has not taken any refugees.
Russia has backed Assad from the beginning of the war, providing the government with both heavy artillery like missile systems and small weapons. Yet Putin has not given permanent asylum to any refugees.
CREDIT: Attila Kisbenedek / AFP / Getty Images
In early 2015, over 1,000 Syrians were provided temporary asylum in Russia. More than 1,200 had officially applied for refuge in Russia, yet none were given citizenship. Journalists have reported onthe difficulties Syrian refugees in Russia have faced. Given their shaky legal status, the asylum-seekers’ rights as workers are frequently violated; many are exploited by Russian corporations, which tell them to accept low wages or “go back to Syria.”
A Syrian refugee who had tried to swim to Europe, yet was rescued at sea by a Russian ship, was put in a detention center for almost a month. The government planned on deporting him.
The Russian government announced on September 9 it is “ready” for Syrian refugees, but will only take them if they follow the law. The chief of the Federal Migration Service added that, “historically, European countries are more appropriate as refuge for Syrians than the Russian Federation.”
The European Commission’s plan to relocate 120,000 refugees. CREDIT: Spanish newspaper El País
The European Commission introduced a plan of mandatory quotas for EU states to relocate 120,000 refugees from Hungary, Greece, and Italy. Under the proposal, Germany, France, and Spain will take close to 60% of the refugees.
France agreed to take 24,000 refugees over two years. The French government also said it would host an international conference in Paris in order to discuss the refugee crisis.
Spain is being asked to take 15,000 refugees.
The UK announced it would resettle up to 20,000 Syrian refugees, but by 2020, not immediately. Britain will take a maximum of 4,000 Syrians every year. Progressive British politicians criticized the conservative-led government for what they see as its “pitifully small” response.
Facts about Syrian refugees in the UK. CREDIT: BBC, AP
Under the plan, Germany was requested to take only just over 31,000 refugees, yet the German government says it can take up to 500,000 Syrian refugees per year. Germany says it expects more than 800,000 refugees by the end of 2015. In the first half of the year, it took in 35,000.
Austria has also committed to taking several thousand refugees. Many Austrian citizens have volunteered to help refugees. It was even reported that citizens had set up free Wi-Fi networks for refugees.
Greece has seen a flood of refugees for the past few months. In a single day, Greek officials registered 15,000 refugees. Thousands of refugees have arrived on the small island nation in hopes of subsequently traveling elsewhere for asylum.
Like Greece, Italy has also seen tens of thousands of refugees arrive via boat on its shores. It hascalled on other European nations to help take the asylum-seekers.
Sweden has been one of the most generous European countries. Although a relatively small country ofjust 9.8 million, it has already taken over 50,000 refugees in 2015.
“After the Second World War, we said we would never again discriminate people,” a leftist Swedish politician explained. “Now we must again decide what kind of Europe we should be, and my Europe takes in people who flee from war, my Europe doesn’t build walls.”
In 2013, Sweden also offered permanent residency to all the Syrian refugees in the country, 8,000 people.
CREDIT: Yannis Behraki / Reuters
Increasingly xenophobic Denmark, where the far-right is on the rise, has been much less accommodating. The Danish government published an anti-refugee ad campaign and has deported asylum-seekers to Germany.
Slovakia, which is also witnessing the resurgence of fascist groups, said it would take 200 refugees, but not Muslims, only Christians. In June, neo-fascists gathered in the capital Bratislava for an anti-Muslim demonstration, chanting “Hang the refugees!” Thousands were also arrested in mass arrests at a violent anti-immigration rally.
Like Slovak leaders, leaders in the Czech Republic are refusing to accept the refugee quotas asked of them. A far-right Czech politician recommended placing the refugees in a concentration camp.
Similarly, Hungary sealed off its southern border in order to prevent refugees from entering. The conservative nation refuses to allow Muslim asylum-seekers to stay. It rounded up refugees, detained them, and transported them to the Austrian border to be taken away.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban assured detractors that his government had no plans to shoot the refugees crossing the fence.
Venezuela announced it is taking in 20,000 Syrian refugees. It already has an estimated 5.6 million Colombian refugees as well.
Since the beginning of the war in 2011, Brazil has taken over 2,000 Syrians—who now comprise the largest refugee group in the country. President Dilma Rousseff said they welcome Syrian asylum-seekers with “open arms.”
Uruguay and Argentina have also created programs for Syrian refugees.
Australia announced it will take 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi asylum-seekers.
Canada has said it will accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over three years. A popular petition has circulated calling on it to take 50,000.
Even the Vatican, the tiny papal state with a population of just 842 agreed to take in two Syrian refugee families.
In doing so, Vatican City—the smallest internationally recognized independent state in the world—has agreed to provide permanent residence to more refugees than the Gulf states, Israel, Iran, and Russia combined.
Troubling Historical Parallels
The enormity of the refugee crisis, and its status as the largest since World War II, have led some to draw historical parallels to Europe’s and the US’ treatment of Jewish refugees before and during the Holocaust.
CREDIT: Sedat Suna / EPA
The Hungarian government pulled refugees off of trains to Germany, detained them, often separated the men from their wives and children, and wrote numbers on the refugees’ arms.
A video journalist linked to Hungary’s neo-fascist Jobbik party was caught on camera tripping and kicking fleeing refugee children so they and their families could be arrested by Hungarian police. Swastikas are common symbols at Jobbik’s regular anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant rallies.
Scholar Juan Cole argues that “All the same arguments against letting in the Jews are now being deployed to keep out the Syrians.” Right-wing demagogues today warn the Syrian refugees may be Islamist radicals; in the 1930s, right-wing demagogues claimed the Jewish refugees may be Communist radicals. Conservatives now warn of an Islamic conspiracy to take over the world, just as many right-wing leaders in the early 20th century—including politicians as renowned as Winston Churchill—warned of a “Judeo-Bolshevik” conspiracy to take over the world and implement socialism.
During the Shoah, the US did give refuge to some Jewish intellectuals and artists, but turned away many more. In perhaps the most infamous episode of this deadly racism, 900 Jewish refugees who, fleeing fascism, traveled across the ocean on the ship the S. S. St. Louis, hoping to be granted asylum in the Land of the Free, were turned away. The US, in which anti-Semitism was widespread at the time, forced the refugees to return to Europe, where hundreds were then murdered by the Nazis.
“Whether Jewish Refugees in ’30s or Syrians today, USA Falls Short of own Ideals,” Cole writes. He notes that the US invasion of Iraq turned approximately one-sixth of the Iraqi population into refugees—roughly four million people. And yet the “US took in only a few thousand Iraqi refugees after causing all that trouble,” Cole adds.
The struggles of refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere, for the moment, seem to not be given much attention as the media focuses on refugees from Syria and as the international community tries to grapple with the largest refugee crisis since World War II.
Ben is a freelance journalist and writer based in New York City. His work has been featured in a variety of publications. His website can be found at BenNorton.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.