A Global Endemic: Breakdown of the Refugee System

By Sanniah Hassan

Angelina Jolie Pitt is primarily known to be an award-winning actor and filmmaker critically acclaimed for multiple movies. She has devoted herself to films such as Girl, Interrupted (1999), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), A Mighty Heart (2007), and Salt (2010) among others. However, she is also known for her extensive community services as a social activist.   Her humanitarian work includes her services as a “Special Envoy” to the UNHCR [the UNHCR or the UN Refugee Agency stands for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Incumbent].

While filming for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2001, Jolie came across a situation in war-torn Cambodia that changed her life forever as she later claimed it gave her a new perspective of the world and allowed her to see things in a way that was more wholesome than before.  When asked about her motives for joining the UNHCR in 2001, Jolie responded, “We cannot close ourselves off to information and ignore the fact that millions of people are out there suffering. I honestly want to help.” She elaborated, “I think we all want justice and equality, a chance for a life with meaning. All of us would like to believe that if we were in a bad situation someone would help us.” Over the years she has made great contributions the world over, including meeting the Afghan refugees in camps across Pakistan. She has also donated $1 million in response to an international UNHCR emergency appeal upon meeting the Afghan refugees.

Moreover, Jolie was officially named a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador at the UNHCR headquarters in Geneva on the 27th of August in 2001. Since then she has actively engaged in various UN missions and has been speaking as a part of BBC’s World on the Move day of coverage of global migration issues. In a video published by the BBC News on YouTube, she warned against a “fear of migration” as well as a “race to the bottom” as countries continue to compete against each other in hopes of protecting themselves. She begins her speech with the statistics, according to her “about 60 million people are displaced today”. This is an ever growing danger because it is increasing far more than our abilities to prevent it. She discusses how the humanitarian system is supposed to work on the principle that it offers protection to the refugees. This protection is provided to them by means of camps that ensure food, shelter and basic medical facilities as well as education be given to the displaced people. This is understood to be a “temporary measure” till the time they can be returned to their countries and/or homes. The most vulnerable of those are also given asylum and placed in another country, which according to Jolie-Pitt is how the “system” is “designed to work and how it should work”.

However, today a breakdown of this system can be seen around the globe. This is so because the “number of conflicts” and the “scale of displacement” have grown alarmingly in the last few decades. Jolie claimed that in the last six years alone approximately 15 conflicts have erupted or resurfaced. Going by these statistics, the approximate number of years any individual will be displaced is about “20 years”. This is a great figure; complete cultures can be wiped out in such a time because a baby can grow into an adult in this time, which means an entire generation growing up in isolation from their homes and countries. Jolie continued that the number of refugees returning to their homelands is the lowest in the past three decades. The situation is devastating because “millions of refuges live without proper food or shelter let alone education” this in turn is caused by a lack of funding for and by the UN. The “spotlight” according to Jolie is on Europe even though the immigration crises faced by Europe is only a small fraction as compared to the rest of the world.

Furthermore, according to the Jolie, the west is neither in the center of nor as affected by the crises as the rest of the world is, also, the west is not for the most part making the “greatest of sacrifice”.  Jolie highlights how the majority of the refugees around the globe are taken in by countries such as: Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan, respectively. She argues that there is a dire need “to address the root cause(s) of the crises” without which “there will be no slowing in the number of refugees crossing borders”. She insists that what we [the global citizens], must do is “demand our government show the leadership necessary to address the fundamental causes of the refugee crises at a global level.” It has “created a risk to the bottom” as Jolie-Pitt puts it, with countries fighting to be the toughest in hopes of protecting themselves whatever the cost or challenge to their neighbors face and despite their “international responsibilities”.

None the less, as Jolie further states in her speech, it is almost impossible for any country to not be affected by the impact of such a grave situation.  She continues to discuss the issue of hopelessness and distrust towards the actions of the government and other political leaders as no progress can be seen in the last few decades. This has left the impression that we are not able to make a “lasting difference” claims Jolie. The problem is not with the leaders, not merely a question of whether they are right or wrong, it is about the people banding together and continuing to make efforts to better the situation, irrespective of our caste, creed, religion, nationality, profession et cetera. Carrying forward with her argument, Jolie draws the parallel of such large scale displacement with the time period right after WWII [the time when the United Nations first came into existence]. Given the current situation of terror and violence, war and bloodshed in different parts of the world, the only thing that makes sense, is for every nation and race to come together. This thought is echoed by Jolie when she describes it as a “once in a generation moment”.

During her speech, she raised another very important issue that of basing ones decisions on ones emotions. She discusses how the decisions regarding the future and stability of the refugee’s should not be driven by emotion because it will not accept reason or logic. She terms this phenomenon as “Naïve humanitarianism”. “All human beings deserve equal human rights but, all people seeking asylum do not have equal grounds for asylum” this is an idea reminiscent of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where the pigs are a personification of the political leaders attempting to unite the people [or other animals, in the case of the popular fable], and motivate them towards a much needed revolution [never mind the fact that this revolution they wish to bring about is for their own benefit(s) but, that is another discussion entirely].

Moreover, she discusses how most refugees are in fact women and children who should not be made to feel like they do not matter, or “worse” that they be treated as commodities. They should never feel that their children are not equal to those of the locals [the place where they have come, seeking refuge] rather that they be given respect and other rights for them to feel safe. One vital argument of utmost significance is raised by Jolie, that so long as war is part of the human condition no one is safe from the threat of becoming a refugee. She discusses how “An unstable world is an unsafe world for all”, and how we must not change ourselves because we face a crises. This leaves me to question that above all else, shouldn’t we address the issue of why people even become refugees. Why can we not work towards ensuring that everyone can feel safe and secure in their homelands? As Jolie states, “Shouldn’t we be asking how to stabilize the world? … This will take generations to accomplish” but it also strengthens the belief that we must all actively play our parts instead of stepping back from the situation. She stresses on the fact that whether we succeed or not, our actions “will define this century”. As she concludes her speech, she requests that everyone abide by the rules and procedures for asylum so that representatives of the UN as well as human beings around the world can ensure a safe and secure world for future generations to come.