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What refugees might say of World Refugee Day

Shift in thought

This year’s event on June 20 comes as aid groups rethink the approach to refugees – less as victims and more as participants in restoring their dignity.

Syrian refugee and Olympic athlete Yusra Mardini, newly appointed UNHCR's Goodwill Ambassador, speaks to the media in Geneva, Switzerland, April 27.
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In 2000, when the United Nations designated every June 20 to be World Refugee Day, little did it know that new conflicts would create the highest levels of displacement on record. In recent years, about 66 million people, or 1 percent of the world population, have fled their homes. More than 22 million are refugees, or those forced to live in a foreign land.

Yet even as these numbers have grown, so too has fresh thinking about how to include refugees and other forcibly displaced persons in the humanitarian response to their situation – not only as victims but as participants able to reclaim their inherent dignity. World Refugee Day, in other words, should not simply be a pity party.

“We must ensure that refugees are included not just as beneficiaries but as real actors,” said Filippo Grandi, UN high commissioner for refugees, at a conference last week that brought together groups working on behalf of refugees. The focus of the conference was on ways to assist refugees to become self-reliant and contribute to their host countries. 

A good reflection of the new thinking is the UN’s latest goodwill ambassador to refugees, Yusra Mardini, a young woman who fled Syria in 2015. When the engine on the boat carrying her and other refugees failed near Greece, she jumped into the sea and towed the boat for hours to safety. She went on to swim in the 2016 Summer Olympics on a special refugee team.

“There is no shame in being a refugee if we remember who we are,” she says. “I am a refugee and I’m proud to stand for peace, for decency and dignity for all those fleeing violence.”

Another example is the world’s largest refugee settlement, located in Uganda and called Bidi Bidi. Its more than 270,000 refugees, mainly from South Sudan, have been given land and supplies to integrate quickly into Ugandan society. As in many of the less-developed countries that host most of the world’s refugees, the newcomers are encouraged to become assets to the economy.

President Trump, even though he seeks cuts in American foreign aid, may have captured the spirit of the new thinking in a speech last month in the Middle East. He praised Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon for their role in hosting some 4 million refugees. And he added: “This region should not be a place from which refugees flee, but to which newcomers flock.”

The World Bank has joined the bandwagon by financing a special economic zone in Jordan to employ Syrian refugees and teach them new skills. The goods produced in the zones will be given special trade preferences by Britain and Europe. In the long run, the project will grow Jordan’s economy. Most of all, says bank president Jim Yong Kim, it will “allow refugees to actually have some hope in their lives.”

It remains important not to see refugees as people simply in a temporary plight. Refugees, says UN Secretary-General António Guterres, “never lose ... their desire to better our world.”