Peace and Refugees Around the World
Refugees Around the World
Marie Jana Korbelova fled her homeland twice, first during World War II due to political turmoil and then again in 1948 when a Communist takeover threatened her and her family’s safety. Seeking asylum as a refugee, she migrated to the United States, where she was able to live without fear of harm and engage in educational and political pursuits, eventually serving as the 64th Secretary of State. Most people remember her today by the name Madeleine Albright.
Refugees are people who are forced to leave their home country due to war and violence. Like Madeleine Albright, they are forced to seek peace in a foreign country. The Christmas season is associated with the coming of Jesus to bring peace to the earth. Jesus taught, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” One of the ways that peace is made today is by welcoming refugees into a new, safe community after they have been forced to leave their war-torn homeland.
International laws define who gets refugee status and establish guidelines and rules for the treatment of refugees. The 1951 convention of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) states that a refugee is a person who is forced to leave their country because they are unsafe there, and that a host country may not return the refugee against their own will back to their country of origin if they fear they will be harmed. It also ensures that refugees are afforded many of the same protections offered to citizens of the country they have relocated to, including access to primary education, public relief, and housing.The Refugee Act of 1980 provides monetary and scholarship assistance to newly arrived refugees, and establishes a process for annually reviewing and adjusting the number of refugees who are permitted to enter a country.The Migration and Refugee Assistance Act directs the President to set the number of refugees allowed into the United States each year by geographic region. For fiscal year 2013, 70,000 refugees are allowed to be admitted, with the highest proportion coming from the Near East and South Asia.
Today’s refugees may come from and settle in different places, but they are seeking the same rights and carry the same potential as the refugees who came before them. Both the highly educated contributors and the less educated, but skilled workers serve as reminders that refugees are, and always have been, part of the fabric of America.
The Refugee Community in America
Refugees and advocates of refugee resettlement complete a significant amount of their work with the United States. The U.S. is the largest provider of humanitarian aid to Syria, and has considered resettling a large number of Syrians within the country. It has also provided $750,000 in humanitarian and protection needs to migrants in Zimbabwe, and $260 million in 2012 aid to displaced Iraqis.
Refugees are often resettled in metropolitan areas, such as Los Angeles, Chicago and New York. Newer refugee destinations include Seattle, Minneapolis and Portland. A number of organizations specialize in helping to resettle refugees in the U.S. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) helps families become established in small towns and communities, providing them with social networks, access to English language classes and job opportunities. Additionally, some refugees have found economic stability through subsistence farming in smaller towns. A recent article in the New York Times highlighted an agrarian program that helps refugees find peace and stability in their new communities:
“Programs like New Roots, which provide training in soil, irrigation techniques and climate, ‘help refugees make the leap from community gardens to independent farms,’ said Hugh Joseph, an assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition at Tufts, which advises 28 ‘incubator’ farms representing hundreds of small-scale producers.”
Friction sometimes develops between refugees and the resettlement community. National perceptions about certain regions, people, and conflicts within regions complicate humanitarian efforts. Refugees seeking peace often experience long waits and are forced to stay in refugee camps, which frequently lack basic physical necessities and public safety. After being resettled in the United States, refugees may face distrust or discrimination from local citizens who judge their safety to be at risk. Somalis resettled in Buffalo, N.Y., and Minnesota have faced extra scrutiny from police under suspicions that they are connected to the Somalia-based terrorist organization al-Shabaab. In addition, refugees in Buffalo face severe language and cultural barriers as they attend public schools, causing very poor test scores.
Refugee resettlement agencies in the United States have begun to place more refugees in small cities and towns such as Des Moines, Iowa, and Akron, Ohio, where the cost of living is cheaper compared to urban centers, and where local residents can be actively engaged in welcoming newcomers. Some of the biggest challenges for achieving full integration include finding sustainable employment that pays enough to care for a family, and learning English. These two obstacles often go hand-in-hand, so that refugees are unable to find suitable employment until they learn English. In the state of Washington, a refugee from Myanmar named An Na is struggling to find enough work to cover rent and utility expenses for her and her three children. She worked as a seamstress and farmer in her homeland, but is illiterate in her native tongue and does not know enough English to get a job in the United States. Her two sons and daughter have been forced to drop out of high school and work in order to cover living expenses. Despite the challenges that refugees face when being resettled in America, they are relatively safe and protected compared to conditions that refugees endure in other parts of the world.
Refugees Around the World
There are an estimated 10.5 million refugees in the world, with 1.1 million new people forced to flee their country in 2012. Women and girls consistently comprise 48% of all refugees. The United States currently houses 262,000 resettled refugees, but there are still 2.4 million refugees in the 49 Least Developed Countries who are in need of resettlement. On World Refugee Day, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the United States would be increasing its monetary contributions to the UNHCR to $890 million, by far the largest single benefactor for refugees.
The war in Syria has claimed over 100,000 lives. It has displaced over 4 million people, with 1.6 million seeking refuge outside the country. Many countries are finding it difficult to absorb the massive numbers of refugees. The Zaatari camp located in Jordan began a year ago as a small cluster of tents in the desert near the Syrian border — it now houses over 120,000 people. It has become Jordan’s fourth largest city and the second largest refugee camp in the world. Another 400,000 people live in the city just outside the camp. This great influx of people has sapped the resources of the camp and Jordan, causing many hazards for the refugees living there. People living inside the camps face threats such as criminal gangs, along with inadequate plumbing, electricity and medical supplies. Dr. Al-Nasr, who works for the group Medical Relief for Syria, explained one of the major health problems in the refugee camps he has visited. “It's a problem with sanitation, how to dispose of the bathing water and used toilet water....There are lakes of waste in some areas."
Melissa Fleming of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights’ office recently wrote that what the Syrian refugees are calling for is peace. Only an end to the violence, which she says is often targeted towards children, will be able to halt the millions of Syrian who are forced to leave their homes. Citing the fact that more than half of Syrian refugees are children, Fleming writes, “So as the world contemplates its next move on Syria, we are asking people not just to support Syrian refugees. But also to echo their plea for peace.”
Jordan is not the only country struggling to accommodate an influx of refugees. Turkey and Lebanon are also hosting large numbers of refugees, including 60,000 children.Iraq and the Iraqi Kurdistan Region currently host over 150,000 refugees, and Iraq has promised to contribute $10 million to the UNHCR to aid the Syrian refugees. Syrians will come to represent the third largest group of refugees living in Brazil. 200 refugees have been granted asylum there, but it is assumed that many more have flown there without officially seeking asylum.
Although Syria is suffering from great internal strife and has gained much attention in the media, it is not the only country with an outpouring of refugees: UNHCR reports that today, 45 million people worldwide are refugees or displaced, making it the highest number since 1994. Of this number, 30 million are displaced by violence and human rights abuses within the borders of their own countries. From Darfur, Sudan to eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, from Colombia to Burma, millions remain far from their homes. A refugee in Uganda, who fled fighting in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), shared her hopes for the future: “I’m not planning to go back to DRC. I’m desperate for peace, security and stability.”
46,000 Ethiopians have fled Africa since January of this year, crossing the Arabian or Red Seas, which are overcrowded with refugees, smugglers and pirates, to get to Yemen. To gain passage into Yemen, Ethiopians often seek the help of smugglers, who employ dangerous tactics to secure their way.Camps in Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa are temporary stopovers for many refugees, placing a strain on the countries’ resources. Conflict and economic pressures can create dangerous situations for those staff members assisting refugees. Seven United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) members were killed as a result of the Syrian conflict. In some places, this conflict is organized against humanitarian efforts. The U.S. Department of State writes: “In Sudan’s Darfur region, the government regularly impedes the flow of international relief to 1.4 million Darfurians living in bleak displacement camps. The Government of Sudan has made harassment of aid operations an art form.” This creates great difficulties as displaced persons cannot get the resources and provisions they need, such as medicines, visas and other forms of relief, in order to survive amid the conflict.
Gender disparity creates many dangers for women refugees, and as a result they often encounter gross atrocities such as genital mutilation, rape, sexual assault, acid attacks, trafficking, forced marriage and honor killings. For women, life in a refugee camp carries even greater risks. They not only contend with political persecution and conflict, but also with gender discrimination. This allows for greater physical mistreatment of women, lack of access to adequate health care, and the enforcement of biased practices of certain countries or states that limit or deny women’s legal and national status.
“A tragic hallmark of that conflict [in the Democratic Republic of the Congo] is that women and girls are targeted for violence and rape, just as was the case during the war in Bosnia.” Such harsh treatment compels many women to seek asylum, or safety, by claiming refugee status in another country. People seeking protection from a foreign country can spend many months or even years in refugee camps awaiting review, and during this time, women are still at a heightened risk for abuse.
Women suffer a number of health risks due to childbearing and reproductive challenges. An average of 10-12 births occur every day in the refugee camps in Lebanon and Turkey, and medical supplies are not always readily available to assist with the births. As one woman refugee who lives in the surrounding area said, “I would prefer to die in Syria than live in that desert [Zaatari].”
There is also the issue of statelessness, which affects women and children almost exclusively. Statelessness refers to a person who has no recognized nationality, which has often been termed the “right to rights.” A woman’s nationality is “tied to her husband’s and is affected by marriage. Women can thus become stateless if the law of their country foresees that a woman’s nationality is automatically lost upon marriage to a foreigner and the law of the husband’s country states that she cannot acquire her husband’s nationality on the basis of marriage; if her husband changes his nationality, becomes stateless or dies, or where a marriage ends in divorce, the woman loses her nationality.”
This has dire consequences for women and their children. It makes applying for asylum extremely difficult, leaving them to endure longer periods in refugee camps, and unable to claim any rights for themselves or their children. Problems are compounded as women are often unaware of their rights, and unaware that they may file a claim separate from their husband’s. Without the knowledge and the legal power to demand their rights, women are left at the mercy of state officials.
Sensitivity and other training for all who come in contact with women refugees, such as immigration officers, police, border security agents, social workers and teachers, is strongly encouraged by the International Federation of Social Workers and implemented in order to heighten these professionals’ awareness of gender-related obstacles so that they can provide optimal care, security and resources to women.
There has also been a push to expand the current UN definition of a refugee to include gender-related forms of persecution. This would help diminish the number of women who are detained for seeking asylum and denied protections for gender-based persecution, and would promote healthier and safer living conditions for women asylum seekers.
The Legislative Response
Recent Congressional initiatives focusing on the experience of women refugees specifically, as well as refugees more generally, are included in the 2011 Women’s Nationality Initiative. This State Department led initiative addresses nationality laws that allow for women’s statelessness, which is estimated to affect 12 million people around the world. The initiative aims to increase global awareness of both the importance of equal nationality rights for women, and the consequences of discrimination against women in nationality laws. Nearly thirty countries around the world support nationality laws that discriminate against women. Convincing governments to establish laws that ensure women’s nationality is protected by providing universal birth registrations, and establishing citizenship for stateless persons are also components of the initiative. At the 20th session of the UN Human Rights Council in 2012, the United States introduced a resolution on the right to a nationality with a focus on women and children.This resolution passed on July 5, 2012.
The United States Refugee Program (USRP) accepts refugee applicants recommended from the UNHCR, U.S. embassies and consulates abroad, and direct applicants who have special priority due to a uniquely designated humanitarian crisis in their home country. After pre-screening of files, applicants interview with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Officer (USCIS) to explain their needs. Only the interviewee and children present at the interview are eligible to receive refugee status. Applicants who are accepted into the country must also pass a medical and security background check. The Organization for Migration handles travel arrangements for accepted refugees and offers loans to cover air fare, which a refugee is expected to repay once they are established in their new community. Upon arrival, U.S. law dictates that an accepted refugee is able to work immediately, become a permanent resident after one year, and become a naturalized citizen after five years. Achieving comprehensive and durable world peace demands that all nations and citizens work to fully integrate refugees and support their desires for personal fulfillment through employment, education and family well-being wherever they are resettled.
Call your local congressional representative at 202-224-3121 to urge their support of:
- H.R. 2855: Making Appropriations for the Department of State, which determines the amount of funding to provide in order to sustain and secure organizations and bureaus overseas, which make international participation in the refugee community possible.
- H.R. 6460: the Strengthening Refugee Resettlement Act, which increases protections and services to all categories of refugees.
- And urge your Senator to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women, which would help expand the current definition of a refugee to include gender-related forms of persecution. Got to www.cedaw2013.org to learn more about the CEDAW Education Project.
- Volunteer with a local refugee resettlement agency to help newly arrived refugees integrate into a new culture. Contact a local office at the International Rescue Committee’s website: www.rescue.org/volunteer.
- Read Resolution 3124, “The Church’s Response to Ethnic and Religious Conflict” (pages 265-266), in The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church (2012).