The United Nations reported on 20 June that the number of refugees and others fleeing their homes worldwide has hit a new record, spiking to 65.3 million people by the end of 2015.
According to the latest figures released by the UN, the number of people displaced globally rose by 5.8 million through 2015. The UN has indicated that counting Earth’s population at 7.349 billion, one out of every 113 people on the planet is now either internally displaced or a refugee. The agency has disclosed that they now number more than the populations of Britain or France, adding that it is “a level of risk for which UNHCR knows no precedent.”
While displacement figures have been rising since the mid 1990s, the rate of increase has jumped since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war in 2011. Of the planet’s 65.3 million displaced, 40.8 million remain within their own country while 21.3 million have fled across the borders and are now refuges. Palestinians are the largest group of refugees at more than five million. This includes those who fled at the creation of Israel in 1948 and their descendants. Syria is next on the list, with 4.9 million, followed by Afghanistan (2.7 million) and Somalia (1.1 million).
While Europe’s high-profile migrant crisis is the worst since World War II, it is just one part of a growing tide of human misery led by Palestinians, Syrians and Afghans. Globally, approaching one percent of humanity has been forced to flee. The UN refugee agency has disclosed that “this is the first time that the threshold of 60 million has been crossed.”
The figures, which were released on World Refugee Day, underscore twin pressures that are fuelling an unprecedented global displacement crisis. According to UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi, as conflict and persecution force growing numbers of people to flee, anti-migrant political sentiment has strained the will to resettle refugees, adding that “the willingness of nations to work together not just for refugees but for the collective human interest is what’s being tested today.”
A mixture of a number of factors have led to rising displacement and narrowing space for refugee settlement. The agency has disclosed that “situations that cause large refugee outflows are lasting longer,” including more than thirty years of unrest in both Somalia and Afghanistan. The UNHCR also indicated that news and intense conflicts as well as dormant crises that have been “reignited” are further fuelling the crisis, pointing to South Sudan, Yemen, Burundi, and the Central African Republic, side form Syria. The UNHCR also indicated that beyond the refugee hotspots in the Middle East and in Africa, there were also worrying signs in Central America, where growing numbers of people fleeing gang violence led to a 17 percent rise in those leaving their homes through 2015.
A court in Belgium has approved the extradition to France of Mohamed Abrini, a key suspect in both the Paris and Brussels attacks. Prosecutors however have disclosed that he may not be handed over for some time as he is currently being investigated in Belgium. Mohamed Bakkali, another suspect in the November 2015 attacks in Paris, will also be extradited.
Belgian judges have agreed that both men should be sent to France in order to face questioning over the Paris attacks, which killed 130 people. Prior to the hearing, Belgian prosecutors disclosed that Abrini would not be handed over the French authorities immediately, as he was still being investigated over the bombings at Zaventem airport and at a metro station immediately after. According to a spokesman for the federal prosecutor’s office, “the timeline is not at all fixed,” adding that it was possible that Abrini could stand trial in Belgium first before being handed over to France, or he might be questioned in Belgium by French investigators.
Abrini, a 31-year-old Belgian of Moroccan descent, was identified as “the man in the hat,” seen on CCTV just moments before the explosions at Brussels airport in March. He was also filmed at a petrol station in northern France with fellow suspect Salah Abdeslam, two days before the Paris attacks. He reportedly told investigators that he was at the scene of the 22 Mach suicide bombings in Brussels, which killed 32 people.
Investigators claim that the Brussels and Paris attackers were part of the same network, adding that they were backed by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. Abrini was said to be part of that cell, and before his arrest in Brussels in April, he was one of Europe’s most-wanted men.
The other suspect who will be extradited, 29-year-old Mohamed Bakkali, is believed to have rented the Brussels apartment where the suicide vests that were used in the Paris attacks were assembled.
International crime-fighting agencies Interpol and Europol reported on Tuesday that people smugglers have made over US $5 billion from the wave of migration into southern Europe last year.
A report released by the two agencies disclosed that nine out of ten migrants and refugees who entered the European Union (EU) in 2015 relied on “facilitation services,” which comprised of mainly loose networks of criminals along the routes, noting that the proportion was likely to be even higher this year. The report further indicated that about 1 million migrants entered the EU in 2015, adding that most paid between 3,000 – 6,000 euros (US $3,400 – $6,800), so the average turnover was likely to be between US $5 billion and US $6 billion. According to the report, to launcher the money and integrate it into the legitimate economy, couriers carried large amounts of cash over borders while smugglers ran their proceeds through car dealerships, grocery stores, restaurants or transport companies. Furthermore, while the main organizers came from the same countries as the migrants, they often had EU residence permits or passports. The report states that “the basic structure of migrant smuggling networks includes leaders who coordinate activities along a given route, organizers who manage activities locally through personal contacts, and opportunistic low-level facilitators who mostly assist organizers and may assist in recruitment activities.” The report added that corrupt officials may let vehicles through border checks or release ships for bribes, as there was so much money in the trafficking trade. About 250 smuggling “hotspots,” often at railway stations, airports or coach stations, have been identified along the routes, in which of these 170 were inside the EU while 80 were located outside. The reports authors however found no evidence of fighting between criminal groups, noting however that larger criminal networks slowly took over smaller opportunistic ones, effectively leading to an oligopoly. Last year, the vast majority of migrants opted to take risky boat trips across the Mediterranean from Turkey or Libya, and then travelling on by road. The report states that around 800,000 were still in Libya waiting to travel to the EU, noting however that increasing border controls effectively mean that air travel is likely to become more attractive, with fraudulent documents rented out to migrants and then taken back by an accompanying facilitator. The report also indicates that migrant smuggling routes could be used to smuggle drugs or guns, adding that there is a growing concern that radicalized foreign fighters could also use these routes in order to enter the EU. The report however adds that there currently is no concrete data yet to suggest that militant groups consistently relied on or cooperated with organized crime groups.
The last year certainly seen an increase of military activity in Eastern Europe. Both Russian military exercises, and joint NATO military exercises have been carried out in different places. On top of exercises, NATO continues to boost its military bases and troop presence in the eastern allies. The latest such addition is a new deployment of four battalions of 4,000 troops in Poland and the three Baltic States. From the Russian perspective the NATO build-up is an aggression in itself, something Moscow officials are not too happy about. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has explained that Russian manoeuvres are only close to NATO borders because NATO has let its border creep closer and closer to Russia. Previously Russia has accused NATO of using the situation in Ukraine as an excuse to move closer to Russian borders. From the US perspective, additional presence will increase US ability to conduct military exercises in the region. The Pentagon has announced plans to quadruple its budget for European defence in 2017. Russian aggression isn’t increasing in Easter Europe alone, but the Baltic Sea has seen a fair share of it as well. Russia’s more direct neighbours, the Nordic countries of Sweden and Finland, are concerned about what recent developments mean for their security. This has, among other things, led the Swedish military to revive an old military outpost on the Baltic island of Gotland, where a battlegroup is to be fully set up by the end of 2017. The Baltic Sea tension doesn’t necessarily mean a return to Cold War realities, but it causes a certain nervous atmosphere. Sweden and Finland are not member states of NATO, but debates have been going on in both countries, with Russia behaving in an increasingly aggressive and provocative manner. The Swedish defence minister is concerned with what is unknown. It is one thing to see what the Russians are doing, and quite another to know what it all means. An unprovoked attack on Sweden is certainly unlikely, but Moscow seems increasingly unpredictable. This has prompted a larger defence budget and a shift of focus to regional security after 20 year of focus on international operations. It has also fuelled the debate about NATO membership. According to polls, almost half the population favour a membership, with a slightly smaller number being opposed. The military’s ability to defend Swedish territory has been poor for a long time, but the Swedes have seemingly not cared too much about this, until recently. For Sweden it is a question of whether the long tradition of non-alliance can be set aside, and whether or not the alternative is better. It is the opinion of many that the country has been free-riding for too long, feeling safe because of its close cooperation with NATO, but feeling free without its obligations. If the Swedes are fed up of letting the security of Swedish territory depend on other states’ ability to deter the Russians, perhaps a NATO membership will be realised. Military chiefs are still embarrassed by the 2013 Easter incident, when Russian planes carried out a simulated attack on Stockholm, and the Swedish air force failed to scramble any of its jets, relying on jets from NATO’s quick reaction alert, deployed from Lithuania. In Finland, pressure to join NATO or find other ways of securing the nation’s borders has grown over the past several years, but recent polls show that roughly half the population would be opposed to the country joining NATO, with just 22 percent saying they would support it. Russia has made claims over the waters in the region, and last year they finalised the set-up of a military base in the Arctic. However, Finland has not been attacked by its neighbour since WWII, and both political and trade relations between the two have long been stable and prosperous. NATO has remained open to the idea of Finnish membership, but Helsinki has been reluctant, and has contented itself with close cooperation with the alliance, bearing in mind though that if Sweden was to join it would leave Finland even more exposed. However, the other way around – Finland alone joining, but Sweden staying out – would create an awkward situation, leaving Finland as a strategic outpost without territorial contact with NATO, experts have said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned Sweden in an interview with Swedish media, that technical-military measures will be deployed as a reaction, should any military infrastructure draw too close to Russia’s borders. Finland and Sweden must be ready to apply for NATO membership should it be absolutely necessary. For now there is a promise between the two to not surprise one another with a sudden membership. A membership would be a provocation. The question is whether the advantages of a membership could outweigh the negative aspects of such a risk.
On 20 April, Belgian prosecutors announced that a suspect in the 22 March Brussels bombings has been charged with involvement in last year’s attacks in Paris, France. Osama Krayem, a 23-year-old Swedish national, was arrested in Brussels earlier this month. The Belgian judge responsible for the Paris attacks investigation has now charged him with terrorist murder and participating in a terrorist group. According to sources, he is suspected of purchasing the suitcases that were used to carry the Brussels bombs. Krayem was also caught on CCTV with metro bomber Khalid el-Bakraoui shortly before he blew himself up. He is already facing terrorism charges in relation to the Brussels attacks.
According to the Belgian federal prosecutor, Osama Krayem was picked up in Ulm in southern Germany by a hire car that was retuned by key Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam and had travelled to Belgium. The prosecutor disclosed that ‘The investigation showed that (Krayem) could be placed in different safe houses used by the terrorist group,” including a location in Schaerbeek. Krayem grew up in Malmo in southwestern Sweden. According to a relative, her nephew “just disappeared” and later phoned his family to say that he had left to join the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. Last week, his lawyers disclosed that he was co-operating with the authorities.
In March, three suicide bombers killed 32 people at Zaventem airport and the Maelbeek metro station in Brussels, Belgium. He attacks occurred just days after the arrest in Brussels of Salah Abdeslam, who had been on the run for four months. Officials believe that the attacks in Brussels may have been moved up over concerns that Abdeslam would give critical information about the terrorist cell to authorities.