NEW YORK — June 20 is observed annually as World Refugee Day. The United Nations defines a refugee as “someone who fled his or her home and country owing to “well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
While that definition seems to be all-encompassing, it fails to account for those who have fled home and country to escape the effects and/or aftermaths of natural or man-made disasters.
The 4.2 million asylum seekers, 45.7 million displaced people, or those who are stateless persons, are not necessarily – by definition – refugees. Nonetheless, characterization by a narrower legal classification does not change the circumstances those people are in or the obstacles they face. It is unlikely that any one of the 79.5 million people (inclusive) around the world who have been displaced would debate whether they are a refugee.
Speaking of the current 79.5 million refugees, this is the highest global displacement of individuals since World War II. More than half of those are children under the age of 18.
What is more, the number of global refugees is not declining. Nor is it remaining steady. In fact, Every two-to-three seconds, another person is forcibly displaced somewhere in the world.
Refugees face the problem of finding a new, peaceful place to live. That is not always possible for several reasons, including lack of transportation, lack of money, or physical disability. Many have no place to call home, no place to go, and no way to get there if there were a place.
Many are able to find refuge in camps operated by the United Nations and humanitarian aid NGOs. The camps may provide a modicum of refuge, but they inevitably become overcrowded. There is little or no work available, clean water is in short supply, and access to healthcare is limited.
Life in a refugee camp can be similar to living in a slum. Part of the reason for that is because the closest refuge is typically just across the border of the nearest foreign country. For those whose home is in a developing country, the nearest neighboring country is probably also a developing country. This is the case with the Rohingyans, who have fled Myanmar, hoping to find refuge in Bangladesh.
Refugees often seek safety by jumping from the proverbial frying pan into the fire. But, consider this: The conditions at home are so severe that moving from the pan to the fire is worth the risk. That’s why more than 80% of the world’s refugees are housed in developing countries – living below the poverty line in nations that barely have the resources to feed and provide adequate services for their own citizens.
The COVID-19 pandemic promises to be a particular pariah for refugees, given the typical density of the population in refugee camps.
With 24 people per 1,100 square yards, the COVID outbreak on the Diamond Princess cruise ship spread four times faster than it had in Wuhan, China. By comparison, there are 40 people per 1,100 square yards in the Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh and 204 people per 1,100 square yards in the Moria refugee camp in Greece.
It seems that, at World Refugee Day, we have reached a point in 2020 where refugees can run, but they have no place to hide. Their hope for a better tomorrow is all too often replaced by the fear of what will happen if tomorrow ever comes.
- Action Against Hunger, The Global Refugee Crisis: What You Need To Know
- Global Giving, 10 Eye-Opening Facts To Share On World Refugee Day
- United Nations, World Refugee Day, 2020 Theme: Every Action Counts
- UN News, World Refugee Day: End conflict that drives ‘appalling’ displacement numbers
- India.com, World Refugee Day 2020: A Look at How COVID-19 Pandemic Affects Refugees Around The World
- UNHCR, Figures at a Glance
- Rescue.org, COVID-19 threatens refugee camps