June 20th is World Refugee Day; a day intended to draw attention to the plight of refugees worldwide.
This year attention is likely to focus on Syria. Within just three years Syria has become the single largest origin country for refugees worldwide. Over three million refugees have fled the country, including perhaps one million children. Most are in camps or settlements in neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey; relatively poor countries which are struggling to cope. A further six million Syrians have been displaced inside their country, meaning that Syria also now tops this chart of misery. All told one in three Syrians have been forced to leave their homes. And there is no end in sight for the Syrian conflict.
It is laudable and important to draw attention to refugees through an international day, but there are also downsides to World Refugee Day. First, it focuses on the most public crises – and today this is undoubtedly Syria. Second, whatever the efforts of the international community and NGOs, attention tends to focus on the bad news rather than good news stories. Third, attention quickly fades as public interest and the media cycle move on.
Students and scholars at UNU-MERIT and its School of Governance are conducting research that helps to correct some of these biases. While Syria may grab the headlines, many millions more refugees go virtually unnoticed. Our recent research, for example, has focused on refugees from the revolutions in Libya, to the Great Lakes Region in Africa, to Afghanistan. It also is a reminder that unlike the Syrians, many refugee families have been in exile for generations. In effect the world has run out of solutions for them.
Our research also tries to tell some of the stories behind the statistics, for example by asking why there are so many refugees today. Clearly conflict is an overriding reason, whether relatively recent conflict as in Syria, or persistent and recurrent conflict in places like Somalia. But in all of these places poverty also intersects with conflict to drive people from their homes; and climate change is likely to complicate and exacerbate displacement still further.
Refugees certainly are among some of the most vulnerable populations in the world, but our research shows that they are also resilient and resourceful, characteristics which are often overlooked. By the same measure, while refugees can place burdens on the countries where they settle, for example by overwhelming health and education facilities, or impacting local environments; they also often work, start up businesses and lead innovation. When they return home, refugees can also be important contributors to peacebuilding and reconstruction, for example in Burundi.
Finally, the dynamism of the global refugee crisis is hard to capture with a one-day snapshot. Recent research, for example, predicts significant new displacement of Afghans later this year. There is likely to be rising insecurity as the majority of international troops quit Afghanistan at the end of the year. This will be compounded by rising unemployment and a sharp reduction in economic growth and investment. The political stability of the country is also uncertain as the Presidential election enters a second round run-off.
World Refugee Day is an important moment to take stock. But refugees deserve more than one day in the spotlight.
UN Photo / K. Kitidi; J.M. Ferré; M. Perret; E. Kanalstein