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.