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Fleeing — but not to Europe

Stephanie Höppner cc
December 18, 2017

Never before have so many people been on the move, migrating in search of jobs and security. Large numbers are coming to Europe, but the majority are on the move elsewhere. DW looks at three examples.

Central american migrants travel on the roof of a train near to the Medias Aguas stretch in Mexico
Image: picture alliance/dpa/Str

More and more people are leaving their homes in search of a better life for themselves and their families, or to escape unrest, oppression and persecution. The United Nations estimates that some 244 million people around the world no longer live in the country of their birth.

This shows that the number of migrants has risen sharply from around 153 million people in 1990 — and the figure could soon be even higher. A survey conducted by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in 160 different countries indicates that around 23 million people are currently preparing to migrate.

Read moreThe Migration Dilemma — 'We were treated like animals'

East Africa: Traveling by night

There is a widespread misconception that the majority of migrants are bound for Europe. This is not the case. According to the German aid organization Bread for the World, around 90 percent of all refugees live in developing countries, primarily in African states. The majority are internally displaced within their own country, or have fled just across the border. They don't have the money to travel any further.

A refugee from South Sudan is building a new future for her child after fleeing to Uganda
A refugee from South Sudan is building a new future for her child after fleeing to UgandaImage: DW/D. Pelz

Many people seek shelter in Ethiopia, for example. It's ranked fifth in the list of countries worldwide that take in the most refugees. They come primarily from neighboring Somalia, which has been in a state of civil war since the early 1990s. According to the United Nations, almost 7 million people there are dependent on humanitarian aid, with 800,000 at risk of famine. More than 1 million Somalis have fled to Ethiopia, and to another neighbor, Kenya, which is now home to the biggest refugee camp in the world.

Uganda sets example for progressive refugee policy

Another East African country, Uganda, has a generous policy with regard to refugees. This makes it very popular with people fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo or South Sudan, countries rocked by uprisings and civil war. Refugees arriving in Uganda are given a piece of land to cultivate. However, the journey from South Sudan is extremely dangerous. People usually travel by night for fear of running into soldiers. "Every night we pray we will reach Uganda alive," says one woman in a report published by the aid organization CARE in July.

Central America: Death waits on the riverbank

Migration on the American continent has been in the spotlight again since US President Donald Trump  began calling for a wall to be built along the length of the US-Mexico border. It's not clear how many people actually cross the border every year. The Migration Policy Institute estimates that there are around 11 million migrants living in the US without a residency permit. About half of them are from Mexico.

A young man shaves himself at a hostel in Mexico
A young man shaves at a hostel in Mexico. Despite the dangers, many are still making the journey to the USImage: picture alliance/NOTIMEX/C. Pacheco

Many people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras use Mexico as a transit country. Until 2010 it was primarily young men migrating northwards, but Amnesty International reports that whole families are now on the move, escaping violence by criminal gangs in their home countries.

If they cannot pay traffickers to get them across Mexico, they soon become easy prey for organized criminals. Cartels patrol the riverbanks near the border and attack without mercy, killing refugees to warn off others. It's not known how many have been murdered in this way, but there have been repeated discoveries of mass graves indicating that this was how the victims died.

The International Organization for Migration reports that in 2017 more than 340 people died in the vicinity of the border. Many were killed by gangs; others drowned, probably while attempting to cross a river. Others still were bitten by snakes or scorpions, or died of thirst in the scorching heat. In many cases the cause of death remains unclear. Human remains are often found, for example in the barren mountains in the south of the US state of Arizona.

Southeast Asia: Helpless at sea

It's not only the Mediterranean that refugees are attempting to cross in rickety boats. This is also a problem in Southeast Asia. More and more people are trying to flee Myanmar and Bangladesh for Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Most are Rohingya, a Muslim minority that is persecuted, tortured and repressed in majority-Buddhist Myanmar.

Since mid-2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have fled Myanmar for Bangladesh. In many instances they were stranded at sea for weeks, because the surrounding states, while prepared to provide the refugees with fuel, water and food, have refused to take them in.

Rohingya refugees fleeing from Myanmar ride on a boat to go to a refugee camp in Bangladesh
Rohingya refugees ride on a boat to get to a refugee camp in BangladeshImage: picture-alliance/ZUMA Wire/Zakir Hossain Chowdhury

These days, human traffickers have also started to take an interest in the refugee route across the Bay of Bengal. Every year, tens of thousands of refugees resort to asking them for help. According to the German charity Stiftung Asienhaus, the traffickers are particularly brutal. They are said to have held refugees captive in the jungle and demanded ransom money, or tortured them on board the boats. Anyone asking for water or food during the crossing was reportedly beaten.

And the crossing can end in death. More than 200 mass graves were found near a camp on the border between Thailand and Malaysia. For the Rohingya, though, staying is not an option. The aid organization Doctors Without Borders recently announced that in one month alone, between the end of August and the end of September, around 6,700 members of the minority group were killed in Myanmar, including large numbers of children.