The Refugee Project, an interactive map

There are many resources online today that explain and help visualize the global refugee crisis. One of which is the Refugee Project, an interactive map that tracks the movements of migration since globally 1975, using UNHCR data.

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Screenshot a.

The map also includes historical backgrounds to major migrations, from 1975 Vietnam to the Syrian refugee crisis today. The project provides good materials to understand the world’s most vivid memories of mass migration after World War II, including the Vietnamese refugee crisis, following the Fall of Saigon in 1975.

After the conclusion of the Vietnam War, the United Sates became the top destination for South Vietnamese refugees fleeing the communist regime. The US evacuated over 125,000 Vietnamese military personnels and professionals affiliated with the US military at the end of the Vietnam War.

Not all refugees from Vietnam had access to official channels, however.

Over the next few years, a second wave of refugees followed, best known as the “boat people.”  Most of these refugees fled from rural areas, and included many ethnic Chinese fleeing persecution in communist Vietnam (Rkasnuam and Batalova 2014). People boarded makeshift wooden boats and fishing vessels, sailing toward nearby “first-asylum” countries−−Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong, where the refugees waited to be resettled.

These Vietnamese migrants significantly impacted American immigration policy, shaping it to resemble today’s legal landscape. Prior to the Vietnamese refugee crisis, the United States defined “refugee” only in terms of geography (from the Middle East) and/or political regime (from communist countries), with an annual limit of 17,400 conditional entrants. The volume and urgent need of postwar Vietnamese refugees exposed the inadequacy and limitations of American refugee policy. At the UN Geneva Conference on Indochinese Refugees in 1979, the US agreed to be a country of resettlement for Vietnamese refugees.

Finally, in 1980, the US government revised its definition of “refugee” according to the 1951 UN Convention: “[refugee] someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” (Campi 2006).

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Screenshot b.

The series of wars that would engulf Vietnam for two generations began as an underground resistance to the Japanese occupation of French Indochina during the Second World War. After 1945, this resistance was transformed into a popular uprising against the restored French colonial authorities. It took its final form as a massive proxy war between the Soviet and American client states of North and South Vietnam, respectively. When the Americans withdrew from South Vietnam in 1975 they abandoned most of their allies, who were persecuted as collaborators by the unified Communist regime. Millions were interned in “reeducation” gulags where hundreds of thousands died. Ethnic minorities such as the Hmong and Montagnards, who had supported the Americans, were targeted. Since the adjoining countries of Laos and Cambodia had also fallen under Communist control, escape by land was nearly impossible. Most of the “class enemies” who evaded arrest or summary execution took to the seas. In flimsy, often improvised vessels, a few thousand refugees made desperate attempts to reach Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong or even Australia.

—The Refugee Project, “1975 ❘ Viet Nam
Saigon falls to Communist Forces”

Today, Vietnamese immigrants make up the sixth largest immigrant group in the United States, the majority of them children of refugees. In 1982, ninety percent of Vietnamese green card recipients were refugees. In 2012, the majority of them (96%) did so through family ties (Rkasnuam and Batalova 2014).

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Screenshot c.

Last year, UNHCR documented 329,331 refugees originating from Vietnam. Two hundred and sixty-four of them resettled in the US (screenshot c).

The Refugee Project illustrates these movements with interactive analysis, mapping the journeys of migration and resettlement through simple, easily understood visuals. It is a handy resource and a good place to start exploring the stories of refugees in the 20th-21st century.

The Refugee Crisis, an Overview

According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, over 21 million people were displaced around the world and in need of asylum in 2000 (UHNCR 2000). The number reached 65.3 million last year; on average, every minute, 24 people were displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution (Edwards 2016). According to UN refugee agency’s estimation, about 20 million live in detention center and refugee camps around the world (UNHCR 2017, McKenzie and Swails 2015). The majority of the displaced people came from Syria (5.5 million), Afghanistan (2.5 million), and South Sudan (1.4 million) (UNHCR 2017).

The common perception is that the refugee crisis is mainly a Middle Eastern problem. However, there is a silent crisis that received far less media attention in Africa, where more than 3 million refugees and 12.5 million people were displaced due to poverty, famine, and repression (Momodu 2015). In Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa, the dictatorship is so severe it is considered to have one of the worse human rights conditions in the world; Nigeria is ravaged by Boko Haram militants, while in Niger poverty and disastrous floods forced people into internal displacement or migration (Goldenberg 2014; Kingsley 2016; Morlin-Yron 2017).

While the flows and sources of migration change during different periods of time, the majority of the refugees today are from the Middle East and Africa. People are trying to reach Europe and Middle East and North Africa (MENA) host communities–Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan–through the treacherous paths across the Sahara Desert and Mediterranean. But the struggle does not end after people manage the dangerous border-crossing.

People could stay up to years in refugee camps and detention centers under poor living conditions until they could be resettled in a host country—if they get resettled at all. In any given moment, there are millions of displaced people strained in refugee camps. Each of them would spend an average of 12 years in a camp (McClelland 2014, source to be verified). Over half of these refugees are children, who are at risk of violence, abuse, trafficking, or military recruitment as child soldiers. While education is also considered an universal human right (Article 25), half of the refugee children will not have access to primary education, and only twenty percent of them attend secondary school. Not to mention the poor conditions in which refugees, children and adults alike, would have to live in.

Outside of the Middle East and Africa, the Norwegian Refugee Council documented that over 4 million people were displaced by typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2014 (Romtveit 2014); in 2016, more than 24 million people were displaced by disasters worldwide (NRC and IDMC 2017).

Overall, mass displacement is a global issue that is not likely to ameliorate any time soon. The condition of involuntary displacement compels that people will be crossing country lines regardless of assistance. Official regulations only stand to make the process more chaotic or orderly. Responsible and competent systems are in high demand to streamline and resettle displaced people into new host countries—a global solution for a global issue.