Imagine living in the middle of a civil war, gunfire outside your home and bullets slicing through your walls. Imagine children attending school when a missile strike causes the top level of the building to collapse. Imagine being kidnapped and forced to become a soldier or targeted for violence because of your religious or political beliefs.
For millions of people globally, it doesn’t require imagination. These are the terrible realities which drive individuals and families to make the desperate choice to abandon their homes, loved ones and everything familiar in order to flee to safety. Flight itself is often perilous, due to geographical risks such as crossing deserts, or safety risks, including corrupt police, bandits, smugglers, human traffickers and military or terrorist activity.
Those who flee violence or persecution within their countries are called internally displaced persons (IDPs), while those who cross into another country are referred to as refugees. In times of crisis, the UN often steps in to create refugee camps for temporary shelter and aid. However, a majority of IDPs and refugees do not live in camps, according to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).
“The refugee camps receive a lot of attention, but the people outside the camps are often worse off. And they are practically invisible,’’ Country Director of Swiss NGO Medair Edwin Visser told The Guardian.
To make matters worse, the global displacement crisis is growing. UNHCR’s report out Monday shows the number of forcibly displaced people rose to a record 65.6 million by the end of 2016.
War and persecution have been driving more people than ever out of their homes and homelands, according to UNHCR. The agency designates today, June 20, as “World Refugee Day” each year to “commemorate the strength, courage and perseverance of refugees” and express solidarity with them.
While there are commons reasons, each refugee’s story is personal and unique.
Mohammed, a Syrian gym teacher-turned-refugee, said in the documentary After Spring, he and his family lived a year in the midst of armed conflict before leaving.
“Sometimes bullets shot through my house, nearly hitting my kids and me. The children were extremely scared,” he recounted. His family now lives in Zaatari camp in Jordan, longing for a time when it will be safe to return to Syria.
Since 2011, Syria’s brutal and protracted civil war has displaced about 12 million people, eclipsing many other emergencies. Roughly one million Syrians have applied for asylum in Europe.
As bad as the situation is in Syria, South Sudan actually has the fastest growing displacement rate from last year. Many other countries also have large numbers of displaced people including Ukraine, Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria. Another of the largest refugee producing countries is Somalia, due to war and the rise of Islamic militant group Al-Shabaab.
Almost 250,000 Somali refugees still live in limbo in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camps (the largest refugee compound in the world). The camps were intended to be temporary refuge from the 1991 Somali civil war, yet they still exist 26 years later.
Refugees who cannot ever return to their homelands because it is too dangerous sometimes apply for resettlement elsewhere. Applications and screenings are rigorous and can take years. Fewer than one percent of refugees of concern were resettled in 2015.
The rising tide of displaced individuals is a challenge for policy makers around the world, and political battles and disagreements are inevitable. But on this World Refugee Day, let’s remember that refugees are people who have uniquely suffered trauma and loss, remain in a constant state of uncertainty about their futures, and still need help.
Julia A. Seymour
Julia A. Seymour is a writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. She can be found on Twitter @SteakandaBible
1. To better understand the complicated refugee crisis, check out the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
2. Films such as the documentary After Spring, and books like City of Thorns and Seeking Refuge reveal the humanity behind the statistics of the displacement crisis by sharing refugees’ stories.
3. If you want to learn how you and/or your church can get involved, visit https://www.worldrelief.org/world-refugee-day.
(c) 2017 Wilberforce