June 20th is World Refugee Day. This is a day dedicated to raising awareness about the plight of refugees worldwide. This year’s campaign theme is: “Take 1 minute to support a family forced to flee.”
While many people might not see the importance or urgency of helping refugees, either because they are scared or wary of them, ignorant about what causes refugee populations in the first place, or who refugees are — or merely because they cannot wrap their heads around the fact that in literally one minute, someone can lose everything and be forced to flee their home — refugee populations are in dire need of international support and protection.
Here is why we should all take one minute and observe World Refugee Day.
This year, World Refugee Day comes amid efforts by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to deal simultaneously with four major emergencies: in Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Syria. This is in addition to the other major refugee crises of concern to the UNHCR, in Côte d’Ivoire, Libya and Somalia, as well as the millions of other refugees from protracted conflicts, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Just a few weeks ago, the UN Refugee Agency launched its largest financial appeal in history to help assist the thousands of families affected by the war in Syria, and this week the agency released its “annual global trends in displacement report,” where it reported that there are now more than 45.2 million people around the world who have been displaced from their country of origin due primarily to conflict and violence. In 2012, 23,000 people per day were forced to flee their homes around the world.
While the statistics are alarming, the reality on the ground is even more heart-wrenching.
Last fall I had the privilege of interning with the UNHCR in Beirut, where I worked with refugees from all around the Middle East and North Africa (MENA region.) Among these refugees were hundreds fleeing from the neighboring civil war in Syria. But I also had a chance to interact with asylum-seekers and refugees from Iraq, Sudan, Ethiopia, Egypt, Iran, Somalia, Bahrain and Turkey.
The atrocities, brutality, and challenges that refugees face on a daily basis either in the country of origin or in their host countries are mind-blowing.
Lebanon, for instance, is just one of many countries which have not signed the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. Therefore, the Lebanese state does not offer asylum to asylum seekers, nor does it have any legislation or administrative practices in place to address the specific needs of asylum seekers and refugees. Consequently, if an asylum seeker enters Lebanon illegally or overstays his/her visa, they are considered to be illegal migrants, and are at risk of being fined, detained (often for a significant amount of time), and/or deported. As a result, most asylum seekers and refugees live in very difficult circumstances and struggle to meet their basic needs.
Imagine living in a foreign country with your family, not knowing the local population or customs, not being able to make a living, constantly depending on International organization for basic assistance and not knowing when or if you will ever be safe again, or what your fate is going to be.
Counselling Syrian refugees was particularly difficult, as these people were fleeing from a civil war that was happening less than 80 km away from where I was at the UNHCR offices in Beirut and they were describing the tragedy of the war in a way that no amount of articles or videos can ever quite accurately capture.
Each asylum-seeker and refugee had their own particular account of struggle and survival, each more horrifying yet oddly inspiring than the other, and from them I learned what the human consequences of war were. Having witnessed the situation, I can therefore safely say that help is desperately needed.
While the UNHCR and other international organizations, including world governments, work hard at trying to solve the problems that cause people to flee their homes in the first place, most of the solutions that are currently offered to refugees are only temporary resolutions at best, and are often not sufficient answers to their problems, and nor are they sustainable options.
The time is now to help refugees across the world. So take one minute and help spread the word, because remember, no one chooses to be a refugee.
**Shereen Eldaly completed her Master’s in Public and International Affairs at the University of Montreal. She also holds a degree in Political Science and Middle Eastern Studies from McGill University. The focus of her studies and work has been conflict resolution and the Middle East. She has worked for the the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Canadian NGO Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME). Follow on Twitter: @shereeneldaly