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World Refugee Day

by Erin Patrick


This year’s World Refugee Day is being celebrated – if that’s the proper word to use – in the midst of one of the largest population upheavals in recent memory. Just this year, more than one million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries, bringing the total from that country alone to over 1.5 million refugees,  and counting.  The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, is registering more than 250,000 new Syrian refugees per month. This shocking figure doesn’t even take into account the untold millions of Syrians who are displaced within Syria (called “internally displaced people” or IDPs) or those who could not flee because they’ve been injured or killed in the fighting. Estimates are than over half of all Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance. The severity of the crisis was made clear by the UN’s recent record request for USD 5 billion in humanitarian assistance for Syria – the largest such request ever made. 


And that’s just Syria. 


Add in hundreds of thousands of new refugees and IDPs fleeing the recent conflict in Mali; the M23 rebellion in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); the coup in the Central African Republic (CAR); ongoing waves of fighting in Sudan…and then layer this on top of the millions more Afghans, Somalis and others who have been displaced for five, ten, twenty years, and it’s clear that we’re currently witnessing an almost unprecedented crisis. 


World Refugee Day was started in 2000 to honor the courage, strength and determination of people who have been forced to flee their homes because of conflict, typically with little but the clothes on their backs, and often having to leave behind family members – or, too often, to watch family members die during perilous journeys through the midst of war, desperately seeking some sort of safety in a strange land. 


As conflicts drag on, generations of children and even grandchildren are born and raised in countries that do not grant them citizenship, where they have few legal protections, where they have little or no freedom of movement, where they cannot go to “normal” schools and where they cannot work legally. Millions of refugee children today have never been “home” – having spent their entire lives in a temporary shelter, in a temporary country, living a temporary life.


Through World Refugee Day, UNHCR and its partners aim to raise awareness of the critical situation of today’s more than 40 million refugees and IDPs, and to support what the refugee agency calls “durable solutions:” to return safely to their homes, to integrate legally and safely into their new community, or to be resettled in a safe third country. Unfortunately, though, as more and more people are forced from home, access to these solutions becomes more and more difficult. 


World Refugee Day is a time for those of us fortunate enough to sleep tonight in our own beds, with our families close by, to reflect on the struggles of the more than 40 million people living day to day, never knowing if they’ll even be able to return to their home country – or if their children will ever have a real place to call home. This day is a chance for us to say “no more.” What can be done? We can call on our politicians to support dialogue and political solutions that can end conflicts. We can support host governments – the majority of whom are struggling to care for their own populations but still generously care for their neighbors – to do the hard work of integrating refugees and IDPs into their communities. We can support humanitarian organizations that provide needed food, shelter and health care to those who would otherwise go without. We can say, in keeping with the theme of this year’s World Refugee Day – that one family torn apart by war is too many. 


Listen to children talk about their experiences of being displaced in this UNICEF video for World Refugee Day:


Erin Patrick has worked in refugee policy and humanitarian response programs since 2001, focusing on protection and issues affecting women. She currently works on gender-based violence (GBV) in emergencies at UNICEF. Prior to UNICEF, Erin managed the Women’s Refugee Commission’s Fuel and Firewood Initiative, focused on ensuring that displaced women and girls have safe access to appropriate cooking fuel. She led the creation and served as the Secretariat of the InterAgency Standing Committee Task Force on Safe Access to Firewood and alternative Energy in Humanitarian Settings (SAFE), which developed the first-ever global guidance documents for the UN system on the proper management of household energy collection, supply and use in humanitarian settings. She is also responsible for developing the first Rapid Assessment Tool for household energy needs in humanitarian settings, which she field-tested in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti.