Eastern Africa: They took my home, but they can’t take my future – commemorating World Refugee Day
20 June 2010

Somali refugees in Nairobi. The Kenyan capital hosts tens of thousands of refugees (Peter Balleis SJ/JRS)
In June 2010, the UN refugee agency published statistics that revealed the highest number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide since the mid-1990s.

Nairobi, 20 June 2010 – This coming Sunday, JRS will join the world in marking World Refugee Day. This day was formally established by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2000. Since 2001, exactly 50 years after the implementation of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, World Refugee Day has been commemorated globally every year on June 20.

On Sunday, people from different nationalities, religious backgrounds and political beliefs across the world will unite to pay tribute to more than 43 million people worldwide, who have been uprooted from their homes and forced to flee in search for safety. Understanding what it means to be a refugee and to experience an often arduous journey helps us realise the importance of commemorating this day and of giving them hope for the future. And it gives us an opportunity to look at migration trends and figures.

In June 2010, the UN refugee agency published statistics that revealed the highest number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) worldwide since the mid-1990s.  By the end of 2009, 15.2 million people, referred to as refugees, fled their countries, while 27.1 million people, referred to as IDPs, remained displaced in their own countries.

The staggering reality is that four-fifths of refugees are hosted by developing countries, whose capacity to adequately protect these refugees and provide assistance for them is extremely constrained. Within the East African Region, Kenya hosts close to 400,000 refugees and Uganda hosts more than 135,000 in addition to roughly 447,000 IDPs. Ethiopia has another 135,000 refugees while Sudan has the highest number of IDPs, estimated at 4.9 million. Judging from the insecurity within the region and in Africa as a whole, these numbers are likely to grow. 

What are the forces behind this forced displacement? Each year, multitudes of people flee violence and threats to their lives because of political, ethnic, religious, racial and social injustices against them. Others flee from environmental disasters, civil strife or authoritarian regimes that torture civilians and unjustly deprive them of their inalienable human rights and freedoms.

Many of these refugees and IDPs end up in over-stretched camps, where basic needs such as food and water, access to healthcare, education and work opportunities as well as personal security far outweigh the available resources. Those who grew up in urban areas, find difficulties adapting to living conditions in the camps where they are likely to live a ‘wasted life.’ Add to this the shrinking protection space, where only a small fraction of refugees benefit from the three durable solutions currently available under the 1951 Refugee Convention. These include returning to home countries when conditions of peace and safety have been established, resettlement to third countries for the most vulnerable refugees or integration in the host country but only when specific legal and social standards have been implemented. 

The reality is that without effective solutions to forced displacement, majority of refugees and IDPs will end up living as refugees and IDPs for more than 15 years in protracted situations, with no prospects of finding a place to call home. The debate about burden-sharing where developed countries are urged to help developing nations hosting displaced people has heated up in recent years. In developed countries in Europe, the US and Australia, stringent immigration, asylum and national security legislation and policies are shutting out many people who seek refuge in those countries or eventually get deported. Over the years, these countries have significantly reduced the numbers of refugees they can take, thus limiting resettlement opportunities. With the raging conflicts and political instability in Africa, it becomes difficult for refugees and IDPs to return home in conditions of safety. Then, there is the question of local integration in the countries of asylum, which is a contentious issue. Numerous cases of refugees and IDPs facing intolerance from local authorities and host populations are reported, increasing the resentment towards them. 

Life as a refugee or as an IDP is clearly not easy. While in their places/countries of refuge, they may continue to face similar or compounded problems like they fled from, based on religious, political, cultural and social barriers. As we draw closer to celebrating the 2010 World Refugee Day, JRS urges you all to take time to unite with our suffering brothers and sisters who are continually displaced: Those who need international protection, those who are survivors of torture and even those, particularly women and children, who are subjected to early/forced marriages; physical, mental or sexual abuse and exploitation; slavery and those whose fundamental rights and freedoms are curtailed every second of the day.

On Sunday, JRS will celebrate with all displaced persons across the world in their tumultuous journey. We will not grow weary, but we will be confident that our accompaniment, service and advocacy gives refugees hope and that one day, they will experience the peace, security and tranquility that we all aspire to have.

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Angelika Mendes
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