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Refugees and migration

Refugees: the crisis of inaction

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Martti Ahtisaari, a formerly displaced person himself, asks the nations of Europe to remember their obligations and respond to the continuing humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. 


I feel a particular sympathy for the millions of people who have been forced to flee their homes as a result of war and oppression. Their plight resonates strongly with me because I and my family share their fate.

In November 1939 my hometown of Viipuri in the region of Karelia, Finland, was attacked. At the age of two, I was among the 400,000 Karelians who were forced to flee to the rest of Finland to escape the conflict. The town was later ceded to the Soviet Union and is now a part of Russia. It will never be my home again, and to this day I see myself as an ‘eternally displaced person’ within my own country.

Today there are 59.5 million people who have been forced to flee from conflict, persecution and human rights abuses.

In large part due to the Syrian conflict, we now face the largest refugee crisis since the Second World War. In response to that devastating conflict more than 70 years ago, the United Nations was established to ensure that it never happened again. Even though we have avoided another war on that scale, much of the world remains mired in conflict and the number of refugees has now exceeded 1940s levels – and continues to grow.

In 1951, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees enshrined their legal right to claim asylum outside their own country. The world’s richer countries can, and should, do more to honour the spirit of this convention. The vast majority of the world’s refugees – more than 80 per cent – live in developing countries that can ill afford the additional economic burden. In contrast, we now see the wealthier nations of the European Union tightening their borders and wrangling over how many refugees they will accept.

As a European, I have to say that the EU response so far has been woefully inadequate. In ever greater numbers, refugees – along with economic migrants – are arriving on Europe’s shores having made the perilous crossing from North Africa. Already this year, over 100,000 have risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean, with almost 2,000 perishing at sea.

Photo: UNHCR

Instead of pandering to xenophobia, governments need to show true leadership in explaining to their electorates why we have a moral duty to address this crisis.

The inflow of refugees must be managed efficiently and humanely. EU member states can honour their obligations to refugees and still respect the economic concerns of their citizens, if they share the costs and divide the burden.

We know that this can be done. We have seen how the West responded after the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. Since 1975, the United States has successfully accommodated a million Vietnamese refugees.

In addition to responding to the immediate refugee crisis, the international community must be more proactive and engaged in seeking solutions to the conflicts that are driving people from their homes. Many protracted conflicts in countries such as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Somalia and Myanmar continue to keep hundreds of thousands of people in exile.

In March 2014, with my fellow Elder Gro Harlem Brundtland, I visited Mae La refugee camp on the Thai-Myanmar border and met some of the 40,000 people who have found shelter there. They were all uncertain whether they would ever return to their homes, but I was impressed by their resilience and hope. We owe it to people like these to show a little more solidarity, compassion and generosity.

As we mark the 15th World Refugee Day on 20 June, we should call on world leaders to open their minds, open their hearts and open their borders to provide a sanctuary for fellow human beings forced to abandon their homes.

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