What comes to mind when you hear the word "refugee"? Perhaps you think of more recent stories in the news about capsized ships, Muslim-bans, and the war in Syria. Or perhaps instead of news, you associate it with other words, such as "crisis", "terrorist", "camp". Or maybe instead of drawing associations, you might just feel bad. You may think of someone who doesn't have money or a home, who is escaping from something terrible, who could be from anywhere. But the last thing that probably comes to your mind, is how you, your family, your loved ones could become refugees yourselves.
The reasons for that are obvious and have to do with the relatively lucky positions and statuses we hold living in the United States. The U.S. will not likely have to face a war in our own homeland, and its' residents will unlikely ever experience displacement because of it.
And this might explain why many of us are so emotionally distant from refugees, asylees, economic immigrants. We, here in present-day U.S., have not experienced direct conflict and persecution from war that would merit the legal status of refugee. We are not refugees.
However, by reviewing our shared history, we see how little that matters. How inextricably linked we are to refugees, through both international law and simple, common humanity.
"Honoring the strength and courage of refugees and encourages public awareness and support of refugees, people who have had to flee their homelands because of conflict or natural disaster".
But before there was a "World Refugee Day", there was a decision to define exactly what made a person a "refugee", in order to decide how to help them. The need for such decision-making was clear when the horrors that World War I (1914-1918) (WWI) and World War II (1939-1945) (WWII) brought upon the international community were fully realized.
In order to effectively prevent such conflicts from ever happening again, the United Nations (UN) was established in 1945. The UN was “tasked to promote international cooperation and to create and maintain international order.” At its founding, the UN was comprised of 51 member states, and has expanded since then to include 193.
However at that point, the two World Wars had already happened and the problem of mass displacement of people, survivors from the collateral damage were now the focus. The UN was urged to pass a 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, or simply called the 1951 UN Convention. This was a definitive moment in history when the UN comprised then of 145 state parties, met to define exactly who is a refugee, and outlined the rights of the displaced, and the legal obligations of countries (including the U.S.) to protect them. The convention endorsed a single definition of the term "refugee" as,
"Someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion."
Interestingly, when the 1951 UN convention was passed, it initially limited protection of refugees to European refugees in the aftermath of the World War II, during which millions were forcibly displaced, deported and/or resettled. But this population of refugees were not to be the last, nor were they the first.
In actuality, the first refugees of the 20th century were from World War I, a war so shocking that it prompted governments to draw up a set of international agreements to provide travel documents for people fleeing their homelands in search of refuge. The numbers of refugees would only increase after World II. This increase in displaced persons led to the eventual ratification of the 1967 Protocol relating to the status of refugees to remove "the geographical and temporal restrictions" of the 1951 convention. This allowed the UN to aid refugees displaced from around the world (not just Europe) from WWII onwards.
The UN Refugee Agency, officially called the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created to guard this task of
"protect[ing] refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people, and assist[ing] in their voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement to a third country".
The UNHCR refugee operations would continue to spread around the globe, attending to the demands of familiar historical events of the 1970s including the Indo-Pakistani War and the Vietnam War.
What lessons are we reminded of from the brief historical overview in which the UN sought to meet the needs of persons displaced from war and other major disasters?
- A natural consequence of war on homeland is societal upheaval, including the displacement of people
- War has been, and is still currently, with us. Therefore, there have always been displaced people, and now more than ever before
- Refugee is a designated status that can be given depending on one's situation. Anyone can become a refugee. As we have learned here, the first refugees of the 20th century were European.
- Refugees are not a homogenous group, but are people from many different countries
- Refugees are people who are proud and rooted in their culture, belief systems, language, and homeland
- Moving past technical jargon, people came together and decided shared responsibility of refugees' protection, resettlement, and placement.
Many of us in the U.S. who are reading this are not refugees. But we are all people of one world, living out our lives with the same common threads of holding onto hope, keeping our loved ones safe, finding some joy in the moments of struggle and hardship.
I am not a refugee, but my family members were. I am just humbled. I am humbled at how much strength and perseverance I see from refugees. I am humbled by how much I still have to learn. I am humbled by the fact that despite a difference in circumstance, we all share a need for safety, and an idea of home, a sense of belonging that we are all searching for.
If you are feeling humbled too and want to learn more, come join us in supporting refugees in the Wichita Community, beginning with a World Refugee Day Commemoration Event!
The International Rescue Committee in Partnership with Newman University School of Social Work Invites you to a Screening and Discussion of "This is Home", a documentary about 4 Syrian families resettling Baltimore, MA.
When: June 19th, 2018 at 5:30pm-8:30pm
Where: De Mattias Fine Arts Center, Newman University, 3100 McCormick St
Further details of the event can be found here.
Or, check out other ways you can get involved with the International Rescue Committee-Wichita here.
"This is not about sharing a burden. It is about sharing a global responsibility, based not only the broad idea of our common humanity but also on the very specific obligations of international law. The root problems are war and hatred, not people who flee; refugees are among the first victims of terrorism"- UN Secretary-General, Antonio Gutteres