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Wars and crises spark global rise in refugees

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Source: DW

The wars and crises of 2011 have lead to a steep increase in refugees across the globe. With many western countries closing their borders, refugees are beginning to look elsewhere for shelter.

It’s like the calm before the storm. The sea is washing against the shore, small fishing boats are returning to port after a day’s work. The town is preparing for the coming tourist season. Over the course of the winter, Lampedusa almost vanished off the radar of public interest.

The small Italian island nestled just off the Tunisian coast had been the focus of much attention last year. For months, Lampedusa had been flooded with African refugees searching for a better life. The poor conditions in the refugee camps led to protests and uprisings. In September the camp was set on fire.

According to the latest statistics of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, Malta and Italy both saw an increase in asylum applications in 2011. Turkey also had more people requesting asylum – especially refugees from Iraq and Syria.

A dramatic year

Many Syrians have fled to Turkey to escape bloody conflict in their country

The figures are a reflection of the crises in 2011 – from the Arab Spring, to the civil war in Syria, and the bloody power struggles in several African countries. In total, some 441,300 people have asked for asylum in industrialized countries – around 20 percent more than 2010. The current UNHCR report registers asylum requests in 44 countries in Europe, North America, Oceania and Northeast Asia.

“The high number of requests for asylum clearly show that 2011 was a year of great difficulties for very many people,” UN refugee commissioner Antonio Gutteres said. In 2010, the number of requests had still been dropping and where the fourth lowest in ten years. Now the number is on the rise again.

“The situation is dramatic, not the number,” said Karl Kopp, Europe expert of NGO Pro Asyl. “2011 was the most dramatic year in the history of European refugee policy; the year with the highest number of people dying; more then 2,000 people died on their way from Libya or Tunisia across to Italy.”

A long odyssey

Refugees from Ivory Coast, Libya and Syria saw an especially dramatic increase – all three countries were the site of bloody conflicts. But the situation in Afghanistan, China and Iraq also continued to lead people to flee their home countries hoping for a better life elsewhere. As in 2010 it was these three countries that made up the bulk of people seeking asylum in the industrialized nations.

European refugee camps, like this one in Greece, are bursting at the seams

The journey often is an odyssey. Many Iraqis, for instance, fled their country for Syria; now, the civil war there is forcing them to once again seek their fortunes elsewhere. The situation with Afghanistan is similar, says Kopp. “The countries that take those refugees – Iran and Pakistan – have stepped up the pressure to send people back. And that means that people are looking for other countries to shelter in.”

Europe remains one of the major destinations for refugees with some 327,000 applications in 2011. Comparing individual countries, the US tops the list with 99,400 refugees applying for asylum. Germany in 2011 received 45,741 asylum requests. “The biggest increase we saw was in Germany with people from Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and Pakistan,” Rochsana Soraya of Germany’s refugee agency said.

A long, dangerous and expensive trip

Statistics from Japan and South Korea wee also surprising last year. The two countries registered an increase in asylum applications of 77 percent. While that’s a steep rise, it still was ‘only’ 2,900 applicants in total. But it’s a sign that refugees are looking for more options to go to, says Kopp. “Also in South America we now see refugees applying for shelter. Maybe that’s a sign that the routes that refugees have to take are getting ever longer, more expensive and also more dangerous.” What drives this worrying development is the fact that places like Australia or the European Union are making it more and more difficult to qualify for asylum or to even get across the border into the country.

Estimates are that in 2012 again, many more people will risk those long and dangerous journeys. The next storm over Lampedusa is already brewing with the first refugees arriving by boat. Small dinghies that are hardly fit to make it across the waters of the Mediterranean. Whoever risks the dangers of that passage has little left to lose. In March alone, several hundred people arrived in Lampedusa, but at least five people died trying to make it there.

Author: Monika Griebeler / ai
Editor: Gregg Benzow

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