Updated | UNHCR says refugee numbers are at highest ever levels

Refugees Commissioner calls for 'humane and dignified means to ensure refugees don’t risk their lives'  • Emigrants’ Commission recommends giving refugees possibility for citizenship after five years of residence in Malta

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of refugees globally, is at its highest ever-recorded level, reaching some 65.3 million people at the end of 2015.

The figures include refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced and they mark an increase of 5million in a year. This represents one in every 113 people on the planet, the UN agency adds.

The figures were presented in the agency’s annual report marking World Refugee Day on 20 June. The UNHCR adds that it was the first time the number of refugees worldwide had passed the 60m mark, with over half of the total coming from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.

“UNHCR marks this day every year to shine a light on the courage and resilience of families forced to flee war or persecution, and we publish the global statistics to find a glimmer of hope that the world is finding solutions to help heal the trauma refugees are living through on a daily basis,” a statement by High Commissioner Filippo Grandi reads, adding that signs of hope were hard to find in this year’s figures.

The influx of people, the biggest since World War Two, has led to greater support for far-right groups and controversial anti-immigration policies, and the UN refugee chief also says a worrying "climate of xenophobia" has taken hold in Europe as it struggles to cope with the crisis.

“Forced displacement has now reached a level unprecedented since the founding of the UN itself and each day another refugee tragedy is played out in the media; of children, mothers and fathers losing their lives in a desperate bid to escape violence.”

Grandi adds that against this tragic backdrop, divisive political rhetoric on asylum and migration issues, and disturbing levels of xenophobia, are together threatening the international agreements that protect those forced to flee war or persecution. The result, Grandi adds, is that borders are being closed in some areas.

“Yet, there is cause for hope. In contrast to the toxic narrative repeatedly played out in the media, we have often witnessed an outpouring of generosity by host communities, individuals, and families opening their homes to refugees,” Grandi said. 

The UN added that 86% of the world's refugees were being sheltered in low and middle income countries, with Turkey being the biggest host country for refugees worldwide, holding some 2.5million people, followed by Pakistan and Lebanon.

Grandi went on to urge world leaders to be smart about finding solutions to help refugees who were losing their lives every day.

“We must find humane and dignified means to ensure refugees don’t risk their lives and those of their families by resorting to ruthless traffickers or by boarding flimsy boats in a bid to reach safety,” he adds, saying that the United Nations General Assembly high-level meeting addressing large movements of refugees planned on the 19th of September will put all states to the test.  

“Will governments rise to the occasion and make new commitments to share responsibility for refugees in a spirit of global solidarity, in line with the fundamental principles of international refugee law? And furthermore, commit to doing our fair share to deliver for people forced to flee their homes, and have lost everything through no fault of their own?” 

The International Organisation for Migration estimates that some 1,011,700 refugees crossed to Europe by sea alone last year, but figures are believed to be much higher than that.

The figures also show that Germany was the largest single recipient of new asylum applications in 2015, followed by the United States and Sweden. However, most Syrian refugees in Turkey are covered by the Turkish government's temporary protection scheme so do not count as asylum.

Emigrants’ Commission recommends giving refugees possibility for citizenship after five years of residence

The local Emigrants’ Commission has made a number of proposals to ease the situation of refugees in Malta.

One of their proposals is to allow refugees residing in Malta to apply for citizenship after five years rather than 10.

“Given that those given refugee status have a right to remain in a country indefinitely, the UNHCR is not answering resettlement requests, then these individuals deserve the opportunity to apply for citizenship in Malta after five years, giving their children the same citizenship as their parents as well,” the statement reads.

The commission adds that the citizenship should naturally come with some conditions, namely a clean police conduct, and a suitable income for the family. It added that those awarded subsidiary protection should be allowed to reunite with their families after five years in Malta, given a clean police conduct, job held for three consecutive years, and a guarantee that they can offer relatives the necessary housing and maintenance.

“We also propose helping individuals to meet these requirements in around three months, and we also urge a solution to allow children of individuals with a refugee status to attain the same status themselves.”

Furthermore, the commission proposes that those given subsidiary protection be allowed to apply for citizenship if they have lived in Malta for ten years, with a clean police conduct, and holding a job for five consecutive years, as well as their own private residence.

“We also propose a thorough examination of those individuals who are not given international protection but remain in Malta regardless for a number of years, to ensure that they are living a dignified lifestyle,” the commission said.

It also proposed that refugees holding regular jobs and contributing to social security systems, benefit from the same rights as Maltese employees, particularly in cases of accidents at their workplace resulting in disabilities. The commission also urged a solution for travelling permits to allow those with temporary protection to visit spouses in foreign countries.

“Couples who give birth or get married during their voyages to Europe, should also be allowed to make a judicial declaration to validate their marriage or register their children,” the commission said, adding that children born during sea voyages, should be allowed to be registered in Malta.

‘EU’s refugee policies must be based on solidarity’ – PN

The Nationalist Party urged EU countries to approach the refugee crisis with a sense of solidarity and co-responsibility.

“It’s no good for EU member states to agree to relocate 160,000 immigrants if they then refuse to take in as few as 1,000 amongst themselves,” PN MP Francis Zammit Dimech said, referring to a recent deal to relocate asylum seekers from Italy and Greece.

“Malta has a right and a duty to make its case that migration is a global issue and should not only be dealt with by those counties directly impacted from it,” he said.

He also insisted that a united Libyan government is crucial in defeating human trafficking rings that operate in the North African country.