Refugees Celebrated on Their Special Day

Refugee women stand before the mural they painted in the Guatemalan town of Tapachula, 2019 (Photo courtesy UN High Commissioner for Refugees)

By Sunny Lewis

NEW YORK, New York, June 18, 2019 ( News) – World Refugee Day, held each year on June 20, honors the strength and courage of refugees and encourages public awareness and support of refugees who have had to flee their homelands due to conflict or natural disaster.

Vulnerable and in need, trapped between intolerable conditions at home and a perilous journey to an uncertain future, refugees are often misunderstood and maligned. They have few or none of their possessions and little food, having fled their homes with nothing or with only what they could carry. They suffer heat, cold, hunger, trauma, despair, disease, violence and loss.

World Refugee Day, organized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), is held to generate public awareness of what reality is like for refugees as well as to raise support and help for them.

From breakdancing to concerts, football to food festivals, millions of people around the world are taking part in events marking World Refugee Day 2019, celebrating the strength and resilience of people forced to flee their homes and seek safety elsewhere.

Across the world, agencies, both governmental and nongovernmental, work tirelessly to help refugees, but with people being displaced daily, more help and awareness is constantly needed to ensure that refugees are treated fairly and provided for, rather than being neglected or shunned.

World Refugee Day highlights all of this, and now it also marks the launch of the With Refugees petition, which states the needs and potential rights of refugees.

Between 2016-18 UNHCR’s #WithRefugees campaign and petition mobilized the public, civil society and governments to take action by asking that every refugee child has access to education, every refugee family can find safe shelter and refugees can work or learn a skill to provide for their families. Almost two million people have signed up to show their support.

With the adoption of the Global Compact for Refugees, we enter a new phase. On December 17, 2018, the UN General Assembly affirmed the Global Compact on Refugees, after two years of consultations led by UNHCR with UN Member States, international organizations, refugees, civil society, the private sector, and experts.

The Global Compact on Refugees recognizes that a sustainable solution to refugee situations cannot be achieved without international cooperation. It provides a framework for governments, international organizations, and other stakeholders to ensure that host communities get the support they need and that refugees can lead productive lives.

Its four key goals are to: ease the pressures on host countries; enhance refugee self-reliance; expand access to third-country solutions; and support conditions in countries of origin for return in safety and dignity.

Where Are They Coming From? Where Are They Going?

The refugee pattern of flight, asylum and adaptation is repeated throughout the world. This month refugees are streaming out of Venezuela, Central America, Sudan, Libya, both Congolese countries, Angola and Cameroon, Yemen and Libya..

This past week, Venezuelans rushed to enter Peru before new rules were imposed on Saturday. A record number of Venezuelans crossed the border into Peru from Ecuador ahead of a new requirement that they must have passports and visas to enter the country. Over 8,000 Venezuelans crossed the border at Tumbes on Friday, the largest number recorded in a single day, according to UNHCR, which has sent additional staff to the border to help authorities deal with the influx.

UNHCR said Peru’s new requirement was also having an impact on Ecuador’s northern border with Colombia, where nearly 8,400 Venezuelans crossed on Friday.

The economic crisis that has seized Venezuela under President Nicolás Maduro is among the worst in Latin American history, forcing more than three million people to flee the country in recent years, most on foot.

They are seeking to escape shortages of food, water, electricity and medicine, as well as government crackdowns, in which more than 40 people were killed in February alone.

In total, Peru has received over 280,000 asylum applications by Venezuelan citizens and given temporary residence permits to over 390,000. The total number of Venezuelan refugees and migrants in the country is estimated at some 800,000.

“People are arriving in a more and more vulnerable situation,” said Federico Agusti, UNHCR’s representative in Peru. “Some have been walking for 30 or 40 days through various countries in the region. We see people suffering from malnutrition or dehydration and people with medical problems. There are more and more families with children.”

With over four million Venezuelans now living in exile, UNHCR Special Envoy and actor Angelina Jolie is appealing for more leadership, more humanity and more support to countries bearing the brunt of the crisis.

“This is a life and death situation for millions of Venezuelans,” Jolie told journalists at a press conference in Maicao, Colombia on June 8. “It is not possible to put a value on the support that Colombia and Peru and Ecuador are giving to the people of Venezuela, because it is the core of what it is to be human.”

Peruvian border authorities are working 24 hours every day to process the arrivals. UNHCR and its partners are working around the clock, providing humanitarian and health assistance, information and legal support to refugees and migrants.

In Bosnia, refugees and migrants have been relocated to area UN deems “unsuitable for human habitation”. Several hundred people rallied on Sunday in the town of Bihac, near Bosnia and Herzegovina’s border with Croatia, to tell authorities in Una Sana Canton they have handled an influx of refugees and migrants poorly.

Over 7,500 refugees and migrants are believed to be in the country, most of them in Una Sana Canton, but only about 3,500 are being sheltered in four transit centers. Others are sleeping in parks and abandoned buildings. On Friday, Bihac authorities raided several private houses where nearly 300 refugees and migrants were sleeping and moved them to a tent camp outside town.

But the UN office in Bosnia and Herzegovina warns that the camp is “unsuitable for human habitation.” Not only is it near an area infested with land mines left over from the war in the 1990s, but it is also located on a former landfill site and lacks sanitation or access to running water.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is experiencing massive new displacement as inter-ethnic violence between Hema herder and Lendu farming communities in the DRC’s north-eastern Ituri province has displaced more than 300,000 people since early June, according to UNHCR.

In a briefing in Geneva today, UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch said that people are fleeing attacks and counter-attacks as both Ituri communities formed self-defense groups and carried out revenge killings.

UNHCR does not yet have access to most of the affected areas, but is receiving reports of killings, kidnappings and sexual violence being unleashed against civilians. Local officials told the Reuters news agency on Monday that at least 161 people had been killed by ethnic clashes in Ituri in the past week. Many of the displaced are sleeping in the open or in public buildings with little or no assistance. Nearly 20,000 have reached the provincial capital, Bunia, where efforts to find suitable sites for them  are underway. Others are trying to cross Lake Albert to reach Uganda.

In Yemen, torrential rains and widespread flooding across 12 governorates in recent weeks have worsened the humanitarian situation, according to UNHCR, which estimates that 80,000 people have been affected, including large numbers of internally displaced people in Hajjah governorate.

The floods have impacted health facilities and increased the risks of diseases such as cholera spreading further. More than 364,000 suspected cases of cholera and 639 deaths have been reported across Yemen since the beginning of the year.

Separately, the head of the World Food Programme (WFP), David Beasley, warned on Monday that a phased suspension of food aid was likely to begin later this week unless agreements with authorities are honored to stop aid obstruction. Beasley told the UN Security Council that 18 months after WFP first uncovered evidence of that “some food was going to the wrong people,” the agency continued to face “fierce resistance to simply just doing our job to keep people alive.”

UN relief chief Mark Lowcock told the Security Council that the conflict in Yemen “is getting worse, not better ” and had displaced 250,000 people so far this year.

In Libya, thousands of refugees are still trapped inside Tripoli amid ongoing clashes. UNHCR estimates that over 3,680 refugees and migrants remain in detention centers near the front lines. The insecurity is reportedly prompting some migrants with no previous plans to head to Europe. Meanwhile, the Libyan Coast Guard continues to intercept boats carrying refugees and migrants and return them to shore.

The UNHCR has called for no more rescued refugees to be returned to Libya in view of the current situation. So far in June, more than 500 refugees and migrants have been intercepted and returned.

Some of the 47 rescued people onboard the NGO operated rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 wave for the camera. They were disembarked safely, and in close cooperation with the Italian Coast Guard, on the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea between Sicily and Tunisia. May 19, 2019 (Photo courtesy Sea-Watch) Posted for media use

The Mediterranean Sea itself has become a conflict zone as refugees from intolerable situations in Africa try to escape to Europe. Italian authorities on Saturday allowed 10 of the 53 refugees and migrants rescued by the Sea-Watch 3 off the coast of Libya last week to disembark the ship on medical grounds. The group, which included two pregnant women, two children and three sick men, were taken to the island of Lampedusa.

The rescue ship is operated by the German NGO Sea-Watch.

On Friday night, Italian President Sergio Mattarella signed a security and immigration decree drafted by Interior Minister Matteo Salvini which could see NGO rescue boats fined up to €50,000 for entering Italian waters without permission. Parliament has 60 days to convert the decree into law and make amendments.

UNHCR warned last week that the law could pose a threat to rescue at sea. On Saturday, Salvini said on Twitter he had signed a provision banning the Sea-Watch 3 from Italian waters, as provided by the new security decree.

On June 11 at the International Maritime Organization meeting, a joint statement delivered by Sea-Watch and Greenpeace International warned, “The humanitarian space in the Central Mediterranean has shrunk to a point where SAR [search and rescue] NGOs face massive challenges to carry out life-saving activities. We urge to collaborate to protect the legal framework applicable to search and rescue in the Central Mediterranean Sea.”

In the United States, officials are scrambling to absorb a sharp increase in African asylum-seekers. In one recent week, US Border Patrol agents in Texas stopped more than 500 African migrants and refugees found walking in separate groups after crossing the Rio Grande.

The new arrivals in Texas were mostly from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of the Congo, Angola and Cameroon. Many of them were bussed to Portland, Maine, where an expo building has been converted into an emergency shelter. The “New York Times” reports that officials, volunteers and NGOs have rallied in both Maine and Texas to assist the African asylum-seekers, many of whom don’t have relatives in the country.

U.S. border officials may be surprised at the new influx of African refugees, but they are very familiar with the hundreds of thousands of people from Central America seeking asylum in the United States.

Violence and persecution by powerful gangs in parts of Central America, coupled with a social and political crisis in Nicaragua, are driving growing numbers of people across borders in search of safe haven.

So far in the first five months of this year alone, 593,507 asylum-seekers and migrants have arrived at the southern U.S. border from Mexico, and Mexico has reported a 196 percent jump in asylum applications.

A new mural decorates the streets of Tapachula, the busiest town on the Mexican side of the border with Guatemala. It depicts a woman holding a baby in her arms, and bears the names of the two dozen women from northern Central America who painted it and profound words capturing their aspirations: love, trust, freedom, safety.

Most of the women who painted the 14 meter-long (46 foot-long) mural are from Honduras and El Salvador. Some fled alone, others did it with their families or joined the “caravan,” like Manuela. They were threatened by gangs, raped, their family members were killed in front of them – their lives are at risk and they cannot go back to their countries.

“We were able to relax, we laughed together, we forgot the problems in our countries,” says one of the artists, Janeth from El Salvador. [All names have been changed for refugees’ protection.]

“This mural represents our daily fight to keep going, it tells our stories,” says Manuela from El Salvador, pointing at the words she painted on the mural: ‘Let’s raise our voice.’”

Manuela has been escaping from the Salvadoran criminal gangs for five years. When she could not meet the extortion fee they demanded – US$170 each week – she and her mother were beaten. During one of those frightful visits, Manuela’s mother died of a heart attack.

Alone and desperate, Manuela moved to another town. The gangs found her six months later and threatened to kill her. She fell into a nightmarish never-ending exodus within El Salvador, spending no longer than a week in any one place. “There is no safe place in El Salvador,” Manuela laments.

At least 29,600 people asked for asylum in Mexico in 2018 – more than a 10-fold increase over the previous five years. They are fleeing violence and persecution from Honduras (46 percent), Venezuela (22 percent) and El Salvador (21 percent), some of the countries with the world’s highest murder rates.

The UNHCR says forced displacement from Central America is straining asylum capacity across the region, placing growing numbers of individuals and families at grave risk and creating situations that no country can address alone.

In view of this, UNHCR is calling for an “urgent” meeting of governments in the region that builds on existing cooperation to plan coordinated action to address this growing displacement challenge effectively and sustainably, in ways that prioritize protection of lives and well-managed borders.

“Based on existing successful practices, a regional approach needs to include expansion of reception capacity and asylum infrastructures, collective support for local integration programs, expanded resettlement within and outside the region, and arrangements for safe and dignified return of people not needing international protection,” the UNHCR said.

Coordinated regional action is also needed to address internal displacement phenomena before they become refugee flows, including robust development initiatives that address the underlying drivers of violence and displacement, the UN agency said.

In this respect, UNHCR supports the Comprehensive Development Plan between Mexico and the countries of northern Central America that is now being negotiated.

Featured Image: UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie meets with children who fled Venezuela at the Integrated Assistance Centre in Maicao, Colombia, June 8, 2019 (Photo by Andrew McConnell / UNHCR) Posted for media use.

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