The UN’s 2020 World Refugee Day seeks to inspire action by stating, “It has never been clearer that all of us have a role to play in order to bring about change.”
Rabat – The United Nations first marked June 20 as World Refugee Day in 2001 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. In 2020, with the highest numbers of displacement on record, the annual international day is particularly significant.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) classifies a refugee as someone who has fled their home and country as a result of “a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” In addition, refugees are identified for escaping the effects of natural or human-made disasters.
According to end-of-year 2019 statistics, there are approximately 80 million people displaced worldwide, including more than 30 million refugees.
World Refugee Day is an opportunity to support refugees and to spotlight their rights and needs. The international day urges the mobilization of political will and resources toward improving the lives of those who have lost their homes and often their livelihoods.
The UN states that “while it is important to protect and improve the lives of refugees every single day, international days like World Refugee Day help to focus global attention on the plight of those fleeing conflict or persecution.”
“Every Action Counts”
The UN’s 2020 theme, “Every Action Counts,” highlights the small actions that make a big difference in working toward a more inclusive and empowering world for some of the world’s most vulnerable people — especially in the time of COVID-19.
As the COVID-19 pandemic and mounting concerns surrounding systemic violence and crumbling economies grow, so will the likelihood of population movement. Not only do current events increase risks of displacement, they also exacerbate the challenges and distress refugees are already facing.
“The number of vulnerable refugees who lack the basic resources to survive in exile has dramatically surged as a result of the public health emergency,” said UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic in a June 16 report regarding Syrian refugees’ pandemic-fueled problems.
In addition to an uninterrupted rise in displacement, the UN notes unprecedented trends toward the futures and prospects of refugees’ lives.
“We are witnessing a changed reality in that forced displacement nowadays is not only vastly more widespread but is simply no longer a short-term and temporary phenomenon,” reports UNHCR High Commissioner Filippo Grandi.
Now more than ever, people who are displaced will struggle to rebuild and resettle their lives or return home. Recent reports show that the number of refugees and internally displaced people able to return to their home country has taken significant downward dips since the 1990s.
At the peak of refugees’ ability to return to their home country, between 1990 and 2000, approximately 15.3 million people were able to return to their home country, compared to the 9.6 million displaced people in the following decade. Between 2010 and 2019, there were only 3.9 million returnees.
Considering the long-term needs and reality of accommodating refugees, many host countries have become apprehensive toward accepting their responsibility to support those in need of protection.
The United States, for example, has slashed its acceptance quota from more than 84,000 in 2016 to a mere 18,000 under the Trump administration in 2019.
The 1951 Convention
Sparked by the aftermath of World War I and the plight of people who fled their homelands, the UN summoned its member states to clarify the rights of refugees and obligations to support them. In 1951, the UNHCR defined the term “refugee” and provided a legal framework that outlines the need for states to protect anyone facing serious threats to their life or freedom.
Now considered customary international law, the rights contained in the 1951 convention and 1967 protocol include: “The right not to be expelled (except under certain and strictly defined conditions), the right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a contracting State, the right to work, the right to housing, the right to education, the right to public relief and assistance, the right to freedom of religion, the right to access the courts, the right to freedom of movement within the territory, and the right to be issued identity and travel documents.”
Additionally, refugees are protected from refoulement and are entitled to other host country rights.
At least 1% of the world’s population is categorized as displaced
One in every 97 people on the planet are victims of displacement. These people are generally categorized under five titles that determine the aid and support directed at their individual situations — refugee, asylum seeker, internally displaced person, stateless person, or returnee.
Those who are not considered refugees may be identified as asylum seekers, a title that often proceeds refugee status by the country to which they fled. Hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers apply for refugee status each year, flaring up political debates within host countries who receive their applications.
The UN classifies those who have not crossed an international border but have left their homes for a different national region due to conflict or disaster as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
“The number of people living in internal displacement is now the highest it has ever been. Unresolved conflicts, new waves of violence and extreme weather events were responsible for most of the new displacement we saw in 2018,” said Alexandra Bilak, director of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.
The UN also recognizes Stateless Persons — those who do not have a recognized nationality and do not legally belong to any country. Due to gaps in data, researchers struggle to count an official number of those who are considered stateless. Liberal estimates measure over 10 million stateless persons worldwide.
Former refugees who have resumed life in their home country receive maintained attention and support under a “Returnee” status to ensure that they are well-prepared and equipped to reintegrate and rebuild their lives.
In light of World Refugee Day, the United Nations issues a global reminder: “The COVID-19 pandemic and the recent anti-racism protests have shown us how desperately we need to fight for a more inclusive and equal world: a world where no one is left behind. It has never been clearer that all of us have a role to play in order to bring about change. Everyone can make a difference.”