These days, there are over 70 million people going homeless, including both those living inside and outside of their home countries. More than a third of the world’s displaced population have been forced to leave their countries and become refugees. This totals to about 37,000 forced to flee their homes each day, due to war, persecution or violence. Sadly, the majority of these refugees come from only five countries – Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. Most of the refugees end up seeking help from neighboring countries.
Syrians continue to have the largest displaced population in the world, with a war that threw many out of their homes in March 2011. Now, there are an estimated 11 million Syrian refugees, with 6.7 million having escaped across the borders – although the number could be much more as some refugees are unaccounted for. Some refugees fled to Europe, risking their lives on a dangerous journey and harsh winters in the open, and now face the new Covid-19 pandemic.
The war in Syria began when anti-government demonstrations first occurred in March 2011 as part of the Arab Spring. However, the government responded with a violent crackdown, causing armed opposition groups to fight back. The Free Syrian Army was quickly assembled out of both army defectors and civilians. With the disagreements between secular and religious sides and different ethnic groups, the conflict in Syria remains ever complicated.
Most Syrians fled toward the Turkish border at the north, which houses refugee camps but without food, shelter or clean water. When the Covid-19 pandemic arose, the United Nations called for a ceasefire in Syria so that the people could face one enemy at a time. The pandemic has been taking the world on a rough journey, but Syrians have it even worse with the poor living conditions the refugees are living in and the crumbling healthcare system in their home country.
Unfortunately, the first cases of Covid-19 have been reported in Syria. Although none of the cases have occurred in the refugee camps as of yet, it is feared that the throngs of people sheltered there will be especially vulnerable if an infection does occur, given that they are living in tight, cramped quarters and do not even have enough basic supplies. There is also the possibility that infection has already occurred but has simply not been discovered yet due to a lack of testing. While the rest of the world is practicing social distancing, those living in the refugee camps of Syria can only dream of it.
Most Syrian refugees do not just flee their homes once. Some escape to areas that seem safe, only to find that they are still caught in the crossfire. Most of those who are not living in the refugee camps have escaped to other neighboring countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, which have been feeling the strain of the added population on their infrastructure and limited resources. Some Syrians fled to northern Iraq and found themselves trapped in the Iraqi conflict, which has itself displaced two million Iraqis. Yet other Syrians flooded into Turkey, overwhelming their hosts and resulting in new cultural tensions.
Afghanistan has weathered decades of conflict, political turmoil, drought and a crashing economy, becoming one of the world’s poorest and most unstable countries. While not having as many refugees as Syria, some three million people have been forced to leave their homes in Afghanistan. About one million have been living displaced from their homes, while the rest have left the country and fled to Pakistan, Iran or Europe. In 2017, it was estimated that about 1,100 people per day, consisting of mostly women and children, were forcibly displaced from their homes due to violence. The conflict continues, and it is estimated that 50 percent of those being displaced today have already been displaced at least twice, making settling down a far-fetched goal.
The country has a population of 35.7 million and it is believed that 6.3 million of those people require humanitarian assistance due to ongoing conflict and displacement from their homes. In addition, they face natural disasters and now the Covid-19 pandemic. Most of these people do not have sufficient access to basic needs such as shelter, food, clean water, healthcare and electricity, making them another vulnerable group of people. Unfortunately, Afghans will continue to be displaced repeatedly due to both natural disasters and conflict. Since about half of the population in Afghanistan depends on agriculture as their main source of income, the climate changes and droughts make it increasingly difficult for them to find reliable livelihoods. As many as one quarter of the population is out of job, and 400,000 Afghan youths are in need of a job each year. Even if non-agricultural jobs are available, they usually do not pay workers enough to get them out of their situations.
On top of a failing economy and the ravages of nature, Afghanistan has long suffered from political instability. A number of political groups have attempted to take over control in the past few decades, passing different laws including communism and strict practices founded on Islam. Additionally, viewing the chaos as ripe pickings, terrorists have recruited and operated their bases in the country, leading to the longest war in the history of the United States. Threats of violence including suicide attacks and airstrikes have been rampant, causing conflict directly in the areas where two thirds of Afghans are believed to be living.
South Sudan is another country with a large displaced population. A young country in its ninth year of independence from Sudan, the situation turned dire when the political party became divided and fought for power. Violence broke out in the streets of South Sudan in December 2013, when the president accused the vice president of an attempted coup. This was the spark that set off subsequent public acts of violence, forcibly removing 413,000 civilians in just the first month. Tens of thousands of refugees sought shelter in United Nations bases.
Although repeated peace agreements have been signed, they have always been violated, leaving the refugees in a volatile situation. Some have returned home only to be displaced again, while others are struggling to get back on their feet after leaving their homes, livelihoods and savings behind.
The crisis has been worsened by the dry season in South Sudan. Those with crops were only able to collect enough food to last for one to four months, less than half of what they would previously have been able to collect. The unstable situation has led to a decline in the country’s economy, with a decreased monetary value and massive increase in inflation. In fact, the inflation rate reached the world’s high at one point, topping off at 835 percent.
The displacement rate in South Sudan is estimated to be around one in three people, with 2.3 million having fled to neighboring countries and another 1.8 million still trapped in the crossfire. Those who managed to escape have lost countless things in the process, including their homes, belongings, lands, jobs and even their loved ones. Others who remain in the country face daily acts of violence such as targeted attacks, gender-based violence, kidnappings and murders. Their homes and belongings are also subject to theft and arson. The conflict has disrupted the lives of all the civilians, including an estimated 70 percent of the children who are out of school.