According to UNCHR, those fleeing their own countries for fear of persecution travel collectively around two billion kilometres per year to reach a safe haven. To honour their resilience and determination and to remind us of the long and tortuous journeys they are forced to make on their way to safety, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has launched the www.stepwithrefugees.org campaign to mark 2019 World Refugee Day.
Many Europeans may not remember today, but the main international piece of legislation protecting refugees, the Geneva Convention, was adopted in the aftermath of World War II with the aim of protecting refugees of European origin. It is estimated that over 40 million people were displaced in Europe in May 1945, and many more would have to flee during the final throes of the war and in the years that followed. The Geneva Convention therefore limited its scope of application to the events occurring before 1 January 1951 in Europe (State parties could opt to extend the application of the Convention outside Europe). It was not until the adoption of the 1967 Protocol that the protection afforded to refugees became universal, with the removal of the geographical and temporal restrictions under the Convention. In the post-war period, millions of displaced Europeans were repatriated to their countries of origin, but others were resettled in the United States, Australia, Israel, Canada or Latin American countries, travelling long distances to find a safe home.
Of the 25.9 million refugees in the world, nearly 60 % come from Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan. Some 80 % of those refugees are hosted by developing countries, with the world’s largest refugee populations currently present in Turkey, Pakistan and Uganda. However, some European Union countries do host significant refugee populations, with Germany, France and Sweden being among the top 25 countries hosting the largest numbers of refugees in the world.
People in need of international protection often travel long distances to arrive on our shores. Syria, Afghanistan and Irak were the top three countries of origin of those applying for asylum in 2018 in the European Union. In many cases, they have to rely on smugglers and make perilous journeys across the Mediterranean to be able to lodge an asylum application in the European Union, as their possibilities to reach European soil using legal migration pathways are scarce. It is estimated that 90 % of those granted international protection in the European Union arrive via irregular channels.
To resolve the issue, the European Commission proposed to establish a permanent European Union resettlement framework that would allow displaced persons in need of international protection to enter the Member States legally and safely. Similarly, the European Parliament has repeatedly called for the adoption of humanitarian visas at EU level, ultimately adopting a resolution calling on the European Commission to submit a proposal establishing a European humanitarian visa by 31 March 2019. Both proposals are still to become law but, if adopted, they would grant some relief to those trying to find safety within European borders.