In the ruins of World War II, people displaced by violence, intolerance, and destitution were everywhere – 8 million in Germany, 3 million in other parts of Europe, tens of millions throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. It was the biggest refugee crisis in history, and it came at the end of a conflict of almost unimaginable brutality that left economies in shambles and cities, factories, and farms unable to provide for even the most basic needs.
Today, the world is largely at peace. There are no interstate wars of the kind that tore Europe and Asia apart 70 years ago. Everywhere, even in subsistence cultures, humans are more prosperous, productive, and interconnected than at any time in history. And yet there are more refugees today than during the dark days of 1945-46. There are now 60 million. If that were the population of a country, it would be equal to that of Italy, just below France and Britain.
The refugees of the 21st century are fleeing for the same reasons as those after World War II – violence, intolerance, destitution. What’s different now is that resettlement or repatriation is taking so long that for many it never occurs. Jews, Poles, Germans, Cossacks, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, and millions more displaced by World War II restarted their lives relatively quickly.
Today, more than 80 percent of refugee crises last more than 10 years, and 40 percent last more than 20 years, according to a study published in the May issue of the journal Science. Host countries prevent refugee camps from becoming permanent to keep refugees from putting down roots, competing with local labor, or becoming a political force in their new country. That consigns refugees to life in flimsy tents and huts with little or no access to jobs, utilities, schools, or markets – “stranded in the present, left in a situation that is forever temporary rather than being able to resettle and craft a stable future,” as Science writer Elizabeth Cullen Dunn put it.
You’ve probably noticed that the Monitor (and other media) are writing a lot about refugees. That’s because of the unprecedented nature of the problem. In the past year, the Monitor has told the stories of refugees making the perilous journey from the Middle East to Europe; navigating a new culture in Clarkston, Ga.; finding new hope and a new home in Austria. We’ve also reported on the difficulties of assimilation and the attempts to blunt radicalism among some of the recent refugees in Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere.
In a Monitor cover story (click here), Ryan Lenora Brown introduces you to refugees who are determined to rise above their situations and compete in the Summer Olympics. This is a story about pride and purpose and a team that represents a virtual country the size of Italy.
“Refugee” should be a temporary descriptor, not a permanent condition. Every refugee should have the opportunity to thrive – back home or in a new home. Let’s applaud the refugee nation at the Games in Rio de Janeiro. Let’s applaud more when the refugee nation no longer exists.