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World Refugee Day

World Refugee Day, which falls on June 20th, is meant to raise awareness of the growing international refugee crisis - and it's more of a crisis than many imagine. According to the Independent, only 100,000 refugees were resettled by the international community in 2017, while 3 million new refugees were created. The article released by the British newspaper was sobering enough without even getting past the title.

"Damning UN report says three people will become displaced in the time it takes you to read this headline," it read, before going on to site worrying statistics about wealthy nations' lack of willingness to welcome foreign refugees.

The UNHCR said the number of refugees rose by 2.9 million from 2016 to 2017, which was the greatest increase seen in a single year in the history of the UN’s refugee agency.

Unfortunately, the number of people resettled under UN refugee programs fell by more than forty percent in the same timeframe, thanks to a growing backdrop of nationalism and isolationism in the developed world.

“Today, on the eve of World Refugee Day, my message to member states is please support this,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “No one becomes a refugee by choice; but the rest of us can have a choice about how we help.”

The Statistics

According to the UNHCR, there are a total of 68.5 million global refugees, and, of the 25.4 million refugees actually registered with the UNHCR, more than 50 percent are under 18.

Conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Myanmar were cited as the greatest drivers of movement, forcing people to leave their homes and, in many cases, their countries.

“Refugees have been driven from their homes by war, other conflicts, human rights violations, and persecution. They are unable to return, unable to have normal lives and struggle to make their ends meet. To re-establish a sense of hope and some purpose in their lives, we still need lots of support from the international communities,” said Dirk Hebecker, head of the U.N. body’s Tokyo office, in an interview with The Japan Times.

Drawing Attention

The UN has held demonstrations to attract attention to the growing refugee situation. In Japan, where Hebecker works, they stationed a refugee tent outside of a busy subway station.

According to The Japan Times, "anyone could enter the tent, which can accommodate a family of five, and touch the pots, lamps and other daily items commonly used by refugees."

The UNHCR urged people who stopped by the tent to post selfies using the hashtag #WithRefugees, noting that one of the difficulties in raising awareness comes from the fact that refugee issues rarely appear on social media.

Those who stayed longer were were also encouraged to sign petitions for three proposals to be included in the Global Compact on Refugees.

  • The three proposals are:
  • To ensure all refugee children have access to education
  • To ensure all refugee families can live in security; and
  • To arrange environments where refugees can contribute to society through opportunities for learning new skills.

Inspiring a sense of global responsibility among the visitors was another one of the project’s objectives. As Hebecker explained, it's all too easy to get caught up in one's own day-to-day worries and completely miss that the refugee crisis is even happening.

Making a Difference

Yet many individuals across the globe are doing their parts to support refugees both locally and abroad.

Amongst them are women such as American Blair Brettschneider, who founded GirlForward, a support group for refugee girls in Chicago, and Hassina Sherjan, who fled Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, eventually returning home after 23 years in the United States to found the nonprofit Aid Afghanistan for Education, which connects Afghan women to educational opportunities.

Particularly inspiring is Greek native Maria Karra, who initially founded the Emfasis Foundation as a nonprofit supporting impoverished and marginalized people in her home city of Athens. A few years later, Karra was compelled to widen the nonprofit’s focus to serve the thousands of refugees stuck in camps in her country. Most of the refugees were fleeing war, violence and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Algeria.

According to an interview with Forbes, the Emfasis Foundation "established prayer zones, separate bathrooms for men and women and a playroom for children in the camps. They also distributed books in Arabic to kids and reams of fabric to women for hijabs and burkas."

Karra herself sees her service to the refugees as natural as she sees her service to her own people. “Our life can only be measured by the effect that it has on other people's’ lives," she said in the interview. "Even if we manage to impact positively on the quality of life of just one more human being, this humble act would have made us better."