On December 4, 2000, the United Nations General Assembly in Resolution 55/76 decided that from 2001, June 20 would be observed as World Refugee Day, noting that 2001 marked the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. This Convention, also known as the 1951 Refugee Convention, is a United Nations multilateral treaty that defines who is a refugee, setting out the rights of individuals who are granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations that grant them, by building on Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Article 1 of the 1951 Convention, as amended by the 1967 Protocol, defines a refugee as: “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it..”
Of course, the UN itself came into being at the time of the last great refugee crisis, when 40.7 million people were displaced from their homes across Europe, Africa, China, Asia, etc., after the Second World War. The same post-war chaos also gave birth to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which guaranteed a “right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”.
Years later, we are now witnessing the greatest movement of the uprooted that the world has ever known. Even more than during the Second World War, as some 65.3 million people were displaced from their homes, 21.3 million of them refugees, according to 2015 UN figures. With nearly one percent of the world's population homeless and fleeing one form of persecution or the other, the crisis keeps getting worse and worse, owing to more and more wars, a lack of political cooperation between states and the world's desperation to look away from these helpless people in the hope of forgetting them — to avoid taking any responsibility for their fate.
The worst hit has clearly been the Syrians. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimated that half of the population of Syria will be in need of aid by the end of 2016. Already the appeal for aid related to the crisis is the highest in history — more than USD 5 billion. Meanwhile, 1 in 4 people in the neighbouring Lebanon, which forbids the permanent construction of refugee camps, are refugees.
Under these conditions, Syrian refugees are being horrifically exploited. In 2016, Foreign Policy reported that “In April, 75 Syrian women were rescued from sexual slavery at a brothel in Lebanon. They had been beaten, tortured, electrocuted, and compelled to have sex more than 10 times a day. Increasing numbers of teenage Syrian girls are entering early marriages in order to receive financial and physical protection from their adult husbands.” And, according to a 2014 United Nations Population Fund study, 41 percent of Syrian youths in Lebanon said that they have had suicidal urges, living amidst the horrors surrounding them.
Closer to home, we have the Rohingya refugees. Between October 9, 2016, and January 5, 2017, over 65,000 of them were estimated to have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh, according to a report from the United Nations Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs. With its limited resources, the Bangladesh government has struggled severely to handle the influx of refugees.
Meanwhile, according to the OHCHR, the accounts of “torture, murder and gang-rape” suffered by the Rohingyas “at the hands of security forces were so severe they may account to ethnic cleansing”. Yet, the world at large is still reluctant to address this issue. However, despite the inhumane fate to which humanity has condemned the Rohingyas, the worst forgotten are perhaps still the Palestinians refugees.
In fact, after the Second World War, the world's refugee crisis, one could argue, had actually started with Israel's ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian population in both 1948 and in the 1967 Six Day War. Hence, the UN General Assembly mandated The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in 1949 to provide both relief and public works for Palestinian refugees.
The UNRWA today provides assistance to more than 5.2 million Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East. Its assistance to Gaza is so crucial that it makes up about 14 percent of Gaza's GDP. However, in 2015, the UNRWA was unable to meet its financial obligations because of an increasing number of refugees to care for, decreasing funding and Israel's deliberate attempts to thwart its efforts, for example, by adding USD 7.5 million extra costs to its deliveries to Gaza. Ultimately, the UNRWA had to reduce funding to thousands of refugee families in Gaza and to Palestinian refugees from Syria, which is estimated to affect about 500,000 Palestinian children.
Countless more people from many more countries and regions are suffering in the same way. The consensus among peoples and countries that finally helped solve the refugee crisis after the Second World War is gravely missing today, along with the willingness to recognise the severity of the situation and the suffering of refugees.
That is why World Refugee Day is so important today. Perhaps, in remembering the plight of refugees across the world on this one day, we will recognise how we keep forgetting them for the rest of the year. And that if we didn't, perhaps, we would take the time to pressurise world leaders to the extent necessary for refugees to be treated with the humanity and dignity that they deserve. And who knows, perhaps, we could even do one better; ensure that no one is forced to leave their homes to stay alive, and become a refugee.
The writer is a member of the Editorial team at The Daily Star.