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Refugees in 2019: ‘Now More People Fleeing Than Ever’

Panel examines plight of refugees worldwide

Panel examines plight of refugees worldwide
From left, activist Roxana Bendezú, Duke history professor emeritus Claudia Koonz and Duke history professor James Chappel.

The state of refugees in 2019:

-- Some 65 million people do not live in their native country. Of those, between 22 million and 25 million people are classified as refugees (half of them are children).

-- About half of the world’s refugees live on the border of a conflict zone.

-- Because of changes in warfare – the use of drones, aerial attacks and suicide bombers, for example -- more than 80 percent of the victims in wars in Syria and Iraq have been civilians.

“There are now more people fleeing than ever, including after World War II. This is a huge issue that affects the whole world,” said Robin Kirk, senior lecturer in cultural anthropology and co-director of the Duke Human Rights Center at the Franklin Humanities Institute.

Kirk and three other panelists on Wednesday discussed the state of refugees – including on the southern U.S. border – and offered historical perspectives.

One of the main causes of people fleeing their homeland is that wars -- when including civil wars -- have increased in duration from an average of four years a few decades ago to 37 years today, said Claudia Koonz, Peabody Family Professor Emeritus of History at Duke.

She noted that most refugees are not well-connected enough to pick up and leave to another country.

“In other words, the poorest of the poor are the refugees,” said Koonz, who worked with DukeEngage-Belgrade and Duke students.

Climate change is another growing cause of displacement, she added.

“Climate change is estimated to become the biggest driver of refugee populations,” Koonz said.

The talk also examined the refugee situation on the southern border of the United States. Hundreds of thousands of people -- mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras -- have fled violence in their home countries. The UN anticipates that nearly 540,000 people will have fled Central America by the end of 2019.

The U.S. Border Patrol apprehended some 593,500 people in the first eight months of fiscal 2019, according to PolitiFact, compared to around 396,600 apprehensions in fiscal 2018.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court this week ruled in favor of President Trump’s push for essentially halting asylum claims, as many thousands wait on the Mexico side of the border.

Lima native Roxana Bendezú, an activist, documentarian and socio-political analyst, blamed the recent influx of Central American refugees to the United States border partly on capitalism and U.S. policies.

“I’ve decided my role is to speak about root causes that make people leave their homes with nothing, and who would want to do that?” she asked. “Is it really for an ‘American dream,’ or is it really because they are just escaping?”

In January she founded Migrant Roots Media, which collects and amplifies the perspectives of migrants on the root causes of migration.

Tens of thousands of migrants are being held in detention facilities in the U.S.

James Chappel, Hunt Family Assistant Professor of History, teaches modern European and international history at Duke, clarified the debate about the usage of "concentration camps" to refer to the facilities on the border. 

While the term brings up images of the Holocaust, he explained, this is misplaced. The Holocaust was unique because it featured "death camps": facilities designed solely to kill. Concentration camps, which can be defined as "mass detention of civilians outside the normal legal system," have a longer history, and one in which the United States (along with Britain, France, and many other countries) is implicated. 

They crop up, he said, because even states like these, which claim universal protection by law, in practice have "in groups" and "out groups."

“There’s always a sense of those who don’t belong are here are at our privilege and these rights can be taken away,” he said.