World Refugee Day: Spotlight on needs
June 20, 2011 | Michel Gabaudan
Today is World Refugee Day -- a day for people to spend a little more time recognizing and honoring the world’s most vulnerable people. At a time when only a few of the world’s refugees and displaced people make the news headlines, I welcome any day that reminds people to stop and pay attention to all 43.7 million people who are struggling to rebuild their lives and communities.
As conflicts become more complex, people are remaining displaced for far longer. As a result, it is hard for governments, the media and the public at large to keep their attention on most displacement crises after the initial spotlight fades. For example, while there is frequent news coverage from Afghanistan, the growing number of displaced people in that country is largely absent from the stories. Yet, more than 430,000 people are now uprooted from their homes in that country, many living in squalid urban slums.
When it comes to the plight of displaced people, the world’s attention struggles to focus on more than one crisis at a time. Today, the spotlight is shining primarily on Syria. Some 10,000 people have fled the brutal oppression of President Bashar Assad. Angelina Jolie visited a camp in Turkey on Friday to help highlight the killings, torture and violence that the Syrian military is unleashing to suppress three-month old peaceful demonstrations against Assad’s regime. She rightly praised Turkey’s government for keeping its borders open and honoring its international obligations to support refugees.
Yet, Turkey is restricting the movements of refugees, and limiting full international observation and journalist access to the camps. I am also concerned that Syria is pushing for people to return home. This is certainly premature and I hope that people are able to return home voluntarily strictly when they are willing and able to do so.
It is noteworthy that so few people from Syria are actually fleeing the country so far. Given the horrendous level of violence, the population is showing tremendous resilience in working towards their goal for regime change.
I witnessed this same resilience when I traveled to Libya in March. There, I spoke with many Libyans who wanted to stay and show support for their country. Untold numbers of people were uprooted inside Libya, living with friends and family or in public buildings. Agencies have had to adjust in order to identify needs and provide critical assistance to people who are scattered throughout towns and cities. Outside the country, more than one million people fled as a result of Colonel Gadaffi’s crackdown against the uprising in his country. Many of these people were third country migrants who were safely evacuated to their home countries. But many, especially those from countries like Somalia and Eritrea, are unable to return home.
Western governments have been challenged over how best to respond to the “Arab Spring” protests. But one immediate easy way would be to support those displaced by these uprisings – as well as other crises around the world. The first critical piece is to provide support to Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt and other countries who are generously hosting refugees. UNHCR noted today that 80 percent of the world’s refugees live in developing countries like Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Second, industrialized nations must increase the resettlement of refugees and allow more to seek asylum and find work in their countries. The European response has been particularly disappointing. The initial reactions of the governments of Italy, France and Germany were to close their borders, detain people and threaten to push them back. This does not exactly show a spirit of burden-sharing or support for the democracy movements that these extraordinary events should inspire.
Part of Refugees International’s job is to create our own spotlight and shine it on the humanitarian needs of people most affected by these world events. In doing so, we generate attention, assistance and protection to the people most in need.
On World Refugee Day, help us recognize the millions of forgotten people who have been uprooted by conflict and natural disasters by learning a bit more about them. Few people understand all of the details about the global refugee plight. Take our quiz and test your knowledge of refugee issues. Then, spread the word by sending the quiz to your friends and family.