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Rich nations ‘not helping’ refugees

We are in the middle — or perhaps it is just the beginning — of one of the greatest movements of people in history; a mass migration that will fundamentally alter the contours of the modern world.

Much of this movement is involuntary. By the end of last year, the population of people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes because of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations stood at 70.8-million, according to the latest report released by the United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR). If “forcibly displaced” were a country, it would be the 20th biggest in the world.

This number excludes the tens of millions more who have fled natural disasters, or who are seeking to escape poverty.

Jan Egeland has been watching these movements of people more closely than most. He is the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, a nongovernmental organisation that provides support and protection to displaced people. It is one of the largest such organisations globally and its research on internally displaced persons contributed to that UNHCR report.

Right now, Egeland is in Ethiopia, visiting the Gedeo district in the south of the country to gather information on a conflict that has been largely been ignored by the outside world. The conflict, between the Gedeo and the Guji ethnic groups, has left hundreds of thousands of people displaced and unable to return home. Most are living hand-to-mouth in temporary camps with limited access to water, food and sanitation. They don’t know when it will be safe to return home.

“This ethnic violence is the definition of an under-reported, under-covered, under-funded, under-attended emergency,” Egeland said. “I even met people who live in Addis Ababa and hadn’t heard about it.”

He is trying to raise attention, and funds, for the crisis in Gedeo, but he is having a tough time of it. Such is the scale of forced displacements all around the world that the plight of a few hundred thousand people in rural Ethiopia barely registers on the international agenda. So far, the UN humanitarian appeal for Ethiopia is only 15% funded.

“Some places are seen as strategic to us, important to us, politically conducive to us as donors, as leaders, as the international community. Some places are actively ignored. The Gedeos and the Gujis, the Somali sand the Oromos [in Ethiopia’s eastern districts], are people locked in ethnic violence and it seems they don’t mean that much to the outside world,” Egeland said.

“There are no journalists covering it as such. These are major stories that are being ignored. We, as humanitarians, are there. We try to do our utmost, but if we are underfunded, we cannot do enough.”

The funding shortfall in Ethiopia is not unique; rather, it has become the norm. And Egeland is quite clear about who is to blame for this chronic failure to provide for the needs of displaced people. “I’m ashamed to say that European and American and other countries have only received 16% of refugees worldwide, and are not providing more help to the neighbourhoods where people are stuck. So again the rich world is not helping. And many medium economies are not doing anything.”

This is in stark contrast, Egeland argues, to the contribution of Norway, which, despite having a population of just 5.5-million, is the world’s seventh-largest humanitarian donor. Other countries, he argues, must learn from Norway’s example because the problem is not going to go away on its own.

With conflict on the rise and the effects of the climate emergency only beginning to make themselves felt, the situation is going to get worse.

“So there are more people in need than we have seen in decades. There are more people displaced by conflict than we have seen — ever. And there is not the commensurate increase in resources. So we have less money now per refugee and displaced person than we had 20 years ago, when the numbers were half of what they are today,” he said. “There are also more hungry people than there were before. People in Africa and other continents are seeing less economic growth than before. The number of people going hungry to bed has grown. There are too few donor nations, and those who are donor nations give too little.”

The situation calls for a new type of politics, said Egeland.

“I hope that we wake up to this and we put more effort together to meet the challenges, which we can, but then we need to make leadership great again, and not just nations. Not just your own self and nation great again, we need to make humanity great again.”

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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