World Refugee Day a Reminder of Resilience, and a Call to a Solution

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A UNHCR humanitarian aid convoy reaches thousands of internally displaced people living in makeshift camps in the Azzas area of northern Syria. Photo courtesy of UNHCR, January 2013.

By Susan F. Martin

On June 20th each year, World Refugee Day commemorates the strength and resilience of people forced to leave their homes because of war and serious human rights violations. Today, the number of people displaced within their own countries and across international borders because of violence and repression is the highest in recent memory. A study released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees one year ago showed 45.2 million people were displaced by conflict. Since then, the confluence of new crises in Syria, South Sudan, and Central African Republic combined with protracted displacement in and from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Colombia and elsewhere has led to mounting numbers of people who cannot return to their homes.

Even these large numbers do not capture the reality of displacement in the modern era. Conflict represents only one reason that massive displacement occurs. Floods in Pakistan displaced approximately nine million people in 2010 and 1.8 million in 2011. In the same period, the 3.6 million people who were internally displaced by conflict exponentially increased due to the La Niña flooding and landslides, which affected over 900,000 people throughout the country and destroyed more than 440,000 homes. Not only did the flooding dramatically increase the number of displaced persons, but 40 per cent of those affected by the floods were already conflict displaced. Large scale displacement also follows hurricanes and cyclones (Typhoon Haiyan in 2013), earthquakes (Haiti in 2010), political violence (Kenya in 2007-8), gang and cartel violence (Mexico and Central America), nuclear and industrial accidents (Japan in 2011), and other life threatening events.

As we commemorate World Refugee Day, two issues should be foremost in the minds of those who care about the human consequences of these multiple crises. First, how can the international community ensure adequate and effective assistance and protection for the world’s refugees and displaced persons—regardless of the reasons they are forced to move? In a world in which wealthy countries worry about their own fiscal health, it is easy to ignore the suffering of others, particularly those in distant lands. Too often, relief is seen as a black hole that sucks up resources but doesn’t necessarily leave people all that much better off. Too many refugees and displaced persons remain dependent on international aid for much too long, not because they would not prefer to become economically self-sufficient, but because laws and policies keep them from working. With dependence comes additional vulnerability, for example, to sexual exploitation and intimidation. As we celebrate the resilience of those who survive dreadful conditions, as we are meant to do on World Refugee Day, we need to be thinking seriously about ways to empower refugees and displaced persons to provide for their own assistance and protection. Disaster philanthropy can play an extremely important role in this regards, directing resources to programs to build and reinforce resilience among those who are displaced.

Second, how do we ensure that solutions are found for the millions of refugees and displaced persons in the world? The norm for too many of those affected by conflict and other crises is protracted displacement. There is nothing more heartbreaking than seeing thousands of young adults born and brought up in refugee camps far from their home countries and communities, knowing they have no alternatives. Traditionally, there are three durable solutions to displacement: return home, settlement in the country of first asylum, and resettlement to a third country. Return is elusive for those from countries with protracted conflicts or continuing instability. Many countries of asylum are fearful of long-term settlement of refugees, particularly if such settlement means the end of international aid or the refugees represent too large and potentially destabilizing population to absorb (as an example, Syrian refugees in Lebanon represent 25 percent of the total population of that country, which has had a long history of sectarian and ethnic conflict). Resettlement is initially costly but for many refugees is the only possible solution. Destination countries such as the United States have benefited greatly from admission of refugees, and not just from the luminaries like Albert Einstein, but from the average refugees who have put down roots, started businesses, and contributed to the cultural and social life of their new communities. Yet, according to the UNHCR, there are resettlement slots worldwide for fewer than 15% of the 700,000 refugees with pressing need for relocation.

As we ponder the meaning of World Refugee Day, finding solutions should be at the top of the agenda. Yes, let us celebrate the resilience of refugee survivors but let us also re-dedicate ourselves to providing opportunities in which more refugees and displaced persons have options to build better lives for themselves.

Susan F. Martin is a member of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy Advisory Council.  She is also the Herzberg Professor of International Migration and the Director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University.

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