I have never been without a country.
I have never had to flee my home during the morning, afternoon, or night due to war, conflict, natural disaster, climate change or persecution.
I have never walked miles in dangerous circumstances to reach the border of my land in search for the nearest refugee camp.
I have never been separated from my family and loved ones to flee for any reason.
I have never had to leave behind my family, my livelihood, my community, my country, my culture or my language to be safe from harm.
I have never been a refugee.
But.....as I write these words....there are more than 60 million of our fellow world citizens that are refugees, internally displaced or seeking asylum somewhere in the world.
I could not imagine what life is like for these 60 million people. Can you?
On World Refugee Day 2015 (June 20) the United Nations and our global community recognized and honored the courageous journey of one of the world's most vulnerable populations; those seeking safety and shelter from war, conflict and persecution. Though international law governing the rights and care of refugees is still growing, I would say the law in this area had very humble beginnings.
The leading international law that defines a refugee, the rights of refugees and the obligation of countries in regard to refugees is the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. The 1951 Refugee Convention was developed in response to World War II and the violence and crisis that uprooted thousands upon thousands of Europeans and specifically the persecution of Jewish citizens. See Article I section 2 of the Refugee Convention.
The 1967 Optional Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees was created to expand the definition of refugee status by removing the time and geographical restriction outlined in the original Convention. The Protocol considers the possibility that people from other parts of the world may fall within the definition of refugee. The 1967 Optional Protocol was an important step in international law. In many ways it prepared the world for the tumultuous events ahead that have created millions of refugees. When I say this I am thinking of the war in Bosnia along with genocide and crimes against humanity. I am also thinking about genocide in Rwanda, Darfur, and the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Burundi.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was created in 1950 by the United Nations General Assembly in order to protect and care for refugees. The UNHCR is the UN Agency responsible for protecting the right of refugees and stateless people to seek protection in another country. The UNHCR also works diligently to provide food, shelter and other supplies to refugees in refugee camps around the world. The UNHCR is currently working in more than 100 countries around the world to protect refugees.
The life of a refugee is hard and it is a life that many of us will never understand. Most often, refugees are not only seeking safety from their home countries because of war, conflict or persecution. On the way to seeking protection, they may also face being kidnapped or trafficked for labor or sexual exploitation. They may also face starvation, sickness, harsh weather conditions, violence and apathy along the way. They may arrive to overcrowded refugee camps only to face potential violence and sexual assaults. Also, due to the unpredictability of war and conflict and the shortage of resources, refugees may be forced to live in refugee camps for years and even decades. The UNHCR often publishes the stories and experiences of refugees and this story of two young girls describes the dangerous journey that many endure.
I do believe that we all have a responsibility to protect and care for the well-being of our world's refugees. It is their journeys and their stories that are the true indicators of the state of our world. Our global refugees are leaving deeply ingrained historical footprints. For them, World Refugee Day is everyday.
We must pay attention.
"You know, those of us who leave our homes in the morning and expect to find them there when we go back -- it's hard for us to understand what the experience of a refugee might be like." Naomi Shihab Nye