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The World's Wealthiest Countries Do The Least For Refugees, Amnesty Says


There are more than 21 million refugees around the globe searching for a safe place to live. And according to a new report, from Amnesty International, just 10 countries are hosting more than half of them. The report finds that the world's wealthiest nations are doing little to address the refugee crisis, which is the worst one since World War II. Salil Shetty is the secretary general of Amnesty International. He joins me on the line from the BBC in London.

Thanks so much for being with us.

SALIL SHETTY: Thank you.

MARTIN: Which countries have taken in the most refugees in this crisis?

SHETTY: The crisis has got two, sort of, broad elements to it. On the one hand, it's, of course, what we see in the Middle East right now. So Syria is really what's been in the news a great deal. But let's not forget that there are some other long-term conflicts and crises, like Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan.

So if you think about these 10 countries, they're, essentially, the countries which are neighbors to the countries in conflict. So as far as the Syrian crisis is concerned, Turkey is, by far, the largest host for Syrian refugees. But Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, all of these, host very large numbers of Syrian refugees. Eighty-six percent of the Syrian refugees, approximately, are in these neighboring countries. And then, if you look at Sudan, Somalia, then - you know, Kenya is one of the big host countries for the Somalia, Sudanese refugees. Also, if you take Afghanistan, Pakistan would be the single biggest and Iran as well.

MARTIN: So how do you change that? I mean, how do you incentivize wealthier countries to take in more refugees?

SHETTY: One of the early calls that Amnesty International made is that, you know, this is a global crisis of proportions we've not seen since the second world war. So it needs a global response. So finally, we had a leaders meeting of the United Nations just a couple of weeks ago. But unfortunately, it was a spectacular failure. There was not a single binding, precise target which came out of that. We need groups of countries who are more willing to come forward and start taking people in. Also, like - and we've seen this. Canada, for example, has already accepted 25,000 more Syrian refugees. Germany has accepted 1 million. So it's really boiled down to a leadership choice.

The surveys we've done with the public, you know, it completely busts this myth that the local population in these rich countries don't want to accept refugees. Like, if you take the U.S., for example, our surveys show that over 70 percent of the U.S. population do welcome refugees. In fact, 15 percent are ready to take them into their own houses. So I think it's indicative that, you know, the public is ahead of the leaders.

MARTIN: Although you mentioned Germany, which, in Europe, has been the country to accept the most refugees from the Syrian conflict. The chancellor there, Angela Merkel, has suffered a real political hit because of that.

SHETTY: She has, and there's no question about it. But, you know, you can't change things overnight. So we need long-term process of educating the population, getting them to hear the facts because what happens is that the third or so who are against refugees coming in are very vocal. And they're creating a whole atmosphere of fear, which is totally not based on the facts.

I mean, one of the things I always tell people is that since I've spent time in these camps, I've not met a single woman, man or child who's told me, from Syria, that they would like to come to Europe. It's not a lifestyle choice, you know, to traverse the Mediterranean where thousands of people died through drownings. Or, you know - most of these European countries have signed on to the 1951 Refugee Convention, so they're simply in violation of that.

MARTIN: When you talk about solutions to this, you say you just need more wealthy countries to be willing to resettle refugees. And you do point to Canada as a country that has been successful in that. They've taken in more than 30,000 Syrians since 2015, compared to the U.S., which has taken in a little over 12,000 Syrian refugees. What is it about Canada's system that works?

SHETTY: At the global level, the problem is we don't have a system. You know, right now, we have a completely ad hoc process where the neighboring countries simply end up carrying this burden for decades. So our proposal is that instead of 10 countries taking the load, can we share this across 60 to 90 countries on an objective basis - you know, depending on your size of your country, your population, your wealth?

But in the case of Canada, it is really a political choice. We've been told that Canadians don't like refugees. They don't want refugees. So what happened suddenly - they suddenly changed their mind? That's not true. I mean, it was really Trudeau and, you know, their leadership. And they said that this is what Canadian values are about. And really, you know, the U.S. is another country where - it's a country that was created by people coming in from outside. I mean, if you look at what Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty is all about, it's about creating a - you know, a diverse, inclusive country, which has become so powerful because of its diversity. But, you know, in practice, the U.S. is hardly taking anybody.

MARTIN: What about aid, though? The United States, for example, has given more than $5 billion toward the Syrian refugee crisis. That's a lot of money. Is that not making a difference?

SHETTY: So - I mean, absolutely it does. And don't forget, again, that, you know, a lot of these are pledges, you know, these announcements which come in meetings. You finally look at what the actual money that goes across - it's close to nothing. But the main point I'd make is, humanitarian financing, very important as it is, is not a substitute for resettling people and receiving refugees.

MARTIN: Salil Shetty is the secretary general of Amnesty International.

Thank you so much.

SHETTY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.