Since the early 1950s, the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) has focused on this complex issue. With an initial emphasis on those in Europe displaced by World War II, its original mandate was three years, after which it was to be disbanded. Since the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the idea of abandoning this issue has not been seriously considered. In 1967, its scope was instead expanded beyond its original focus on Europe. There are 147 countries that have ratified the original convention, its 1967 expansion, or both.
Since the push for independence from European Colonialism began in the 1950s and 1960s, wars for independence, civil wars, and tribal and ethnic conflicts have been endemic across much of the African continent. Many countries had national days of recognition of refugees. With support of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), (now known as the African Union, or AU), many countries in Africa observed a refugee day on June 20.
On December 4, 2000, the United Nations expressed solidarity with Africa, declaring that henceforth, June 20 would be designated as World Refugee Day, focusing internationally on this issue.
Many people in the richer industrialized countries have negative views on immigration. Refugees, guest workers, students, and permanent residents are all “foreigners taking our jobs.” Refugees are different from other immigrants. After fleeing their homes for reasons beyond their control, often fearing for their lives, they deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, and fairness.
The UNHCR, with a 2009 budget of about US$2 billion, focuses on those who can not go back home, fearing persecution for reasons of religion, political belief, race or ethnicity. Repatriation is often a goal for the future, but not today.
Numerous organizations focus on these issues in loose affiliation with the United Nations, including Amnesty International and the International Red Cross. There are many other mostly non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that also provide emergency relief, health care clinics, and economic assistance to the plight of refugees.
How to Get Involved
Obviously, financial support for these various organizations is important. If one finds an appropriate charity, be consistent with your support. Don’t be afraid to promote your cause among friends personally, or on social networks such as Facebook, and Twitter. One person’s $10 donation can easily be multiplied many times by using such services.
As with any charity donation, one should investigate how efficiently this money provides services and resources to those in need. In the case of refugees, “those in need” might include political prisoners in jail in their home country, or masses of thousands living in squalor with minimal food and health care in refugees camps in countries bordering war zones, or asylum seekers needing housing and legal assistance in a third country.
Besides financial contributions, there are many activities one can participate in on a local level. Such local events held around World Refugee Day raise the public consciousness on this vital issue.
One could visit a local refugee center or organization devoted to this cause. Volunteer translators are always needed in a variety of languages at refugee centers, schools, and especially in legal, social service, and health care settings.
Small groups of individuals through a church, school, work, or civic group could sponsor a popular film on the subject, such as Hotel Rwanda, telling the tale of genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s, followed by a discussion.
Consider visiting those asylum seekers in detention, and send letters to governmental officials on their behalf urging fair treatment.
People honor the spirit and courage of millions of refugees worldwide on World Refugee Day. This could include protesting against using former prisons to detain migrants and asylum seekers, screening films about the lives of asylum seekers living in a western country, offering moral support to asylum seekers by visiting them in detention, or writing letters to governmental officials on behalf of political prisoners urging their fair treatment free of torture.
World Refugee Day in Utica, New York
A city well known for its work with refugees is Utica, New York, with about 14,000 refugees in the area. About one-tenth of the city’s population is Bosnian, many of them refugees from the Balkan wars of the 1990s. There are also substantial numbers of Karen from Burma, and Somalians.
As it is a day to recognize the contributions of refugees in their communities, World Refugee Day was observed at Hanna Park, at Utica City Hall in 2009. This included arts and crafts, and entertainment, including Burmese dancers. This event was a joint effort of theMohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees, and the Mohawk Valley Chamber of Commerce. The event attracted about 600 people.
Other communities around the country, especially those with large numbers of refugees and other recent immigrants could well imitate such an event. Having public events brings the local community closer together. It also increases public awareness of this vital issue that is a human rights imperative.
Utica Observer-Dispatch, June 21, 2009