World Refugee Day: On Behalf of the World's Most Vulnerable People

Posted by Simon Henshaw
June 20, 2014
Displaced Congolese Children Shelter From the Rain

All over the world on June 20, nations, organizations and individuals are coming together to commemorate World Refugee Day to honor their courage and resilience of refugees and the dedication and generosity of those who help them.

I have witnessed the different stages of refugees’ often harrowing journeys.  I have seen their courage.  And I have seen the dedication of those who help them along the way.  I am in awe of both.

The horrors that force people to become refugees are hard to fathom.   I traveled to western Uganda last July to visit the Bubukwanga transit center set up for Congolese refugees.  Sixty-five thousand of them had poured across the border in just 72 hours, after rebels attacked a town on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The United Nations Refugee Agency -- UNHCR -- rushed in to help them, setting up a temporary camp in an empty field.  It was pouring rain.  The mud was up over the tops of our shoes.  There was no road yet and trucks couldn’t get up the hill to deliver water.  There were tiny kids, one-year-olds who could barely walk, staggering around in the mud.  One child was alone.  He was naked and had no shoes.  He was just sitting in the mud crying.

He was one of the lucky ones.  He had found refuge in this place, where UNHCR was turning chaos into order, building tents, latrines, and recreational areas for kids.

Escaping to the relative safety of a camp or foreign city is just the beginning of an ordeal that typically lasts for many years.  Some live in camps for decades.  Less than 1 percent of the world's refugees get accepted for resettlement in a third country.   And this process can be protracted, difficult, and confusing, both for refugees who live in camps and for those who live in cities.

In a refugee center in Bangkok, Thailand, I met with some of the refugees and asylum seekers from some 30 countries that crowd into the city’s slums.  No matter where they came from, whether they were illiterate farmers, or had once been doctors, lawyers, or economists, they had some things in common.  They desperately wanted to work and they wanted their children to be able to attend school.  But instead they were waiting, officially barred from working, struggling to pay for rent and groceries and afraid of being detained and deported for being in the country illegally. 

Very few of these refugees can be resettled, and because there are long backlogs, just getting an appointment to register as a refugee can take a year or more.

I have witnessed not just the anxiety of the long wait, but the joy of seeing it come to an end.  In Bangkok, I spoke with a Tamil man who had fled Sri Lanka in 2008.  He was about to be resettled in the United States in Georgia so he was attending a cultural orientation class -- the kind we fund around the world wherever we process refugees for resettlement.  These classes offer instruction in words and pictures on everything from boarding a plane to moving into an apartment and using refrigerators and ovens, door locks, showers, and garbage disposals.  Imagine how bewildering it must be, especially for refugees who have never used electricity or ridden in a car.

Yet, in a short time, many refugees are not only self-sufficient but striving for success.  In Buffalo, the refugee kids I met weren’t just aiming to get high school diplomas.  They were determined to earn college degrees and three young men spoke of their dreams of becoming a doctor, an engineer, and a professional musician.

Last year, nearly 70,000 refugees got a new start in the United States and we aim to admit roughly as many this year, from more than 60 nations.   We commend and encourage their courage and hard work, their engagement in civic life, their efforts to educate themselves and their children and become American citizens in the fullest sense of the word.  They bring cultural diversity to the United States.  They bring qualities that Americans have prided themselves on throughout their history:  courage, resilience, openness to new experiences, and determination to remake themselves in this new land.  And to our humanitarian partners all over the world:  please continue working and raising your voices on behalf of world’s most vulnerable people, and thank you for making World Refugee Day truly something to celebrate.

About the Author: Simon Henshaw serves as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.

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Hassan N.
June 20, 2014
that it s so great to found some one doing like these
Patrick W.
Maryland, USA
June 21, 2014
Why are we all letting them be forced into these camps in the first place. You will never solve anything if it continues to happen every day. This is a losing battle that will never stop, until someone stops it from happening. If you really want to help these people, than stop the people that are forcing them to leave their countries in the first place. What you are doing is not solving anything for the millions that will continue to become refuges in the future. I don't see how, all the United Nations can let this go on for so long. Get off your butts and help stop this from continuing to happen. Everyone is just thinking of them selves and have let this continue far to long. And guess what, it's just getting worse! Who would think that would happen.
Deb M.
California, USA
June 21, 2014
We have thousands of homeless in our own country that go unassisted while we bring in these refugees. I am sorry for their difficult situation, but charity begins at home. At your house, would you allow your own children to starve while you went out and fed others from across town?
Steven D.
District Of Columbia, USA
June 24, 2014
UNHCR's mandate is protection. You well should be frustrated at the development of one conflict after another and should demand answers, but that is a more complicated issue than simply blaming the UN for not doing its job. There is no one size fits all solution. Every conflict is different. Yes, there are issues with the Security Council, there are problems with states not abiding by there international law obligations, and there are non-state actors that cause people to flee their homes. (Look at ISIS in Iraq, as we speak.) Until there are improved global solutions to these varying problems, you want UNHCR there to protect the resultant refugees. It's not their job to ensure that there are no more refugees created...yet they do try to ensure greater protections for those who will be displaced in the future by advocating for better policies. So in that sense they are working to solve what they can for those who will become refugees in the future. The UN is definitely a bit of a Hydra and causes global problems as well as provides some solutions, but UNHCR should not get flack for that which isn't their mandate.


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