By Fr Cedric Prakash sj*
June 20th is World Refugee Day and it emphasizes the need and importance ‘to honour the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homeland under threat of persecution, conflict and violence’. There are an estimated 60 million refugees in the world today and an unknown number of forcibly displaced persons in several countries, like India. This year the UN Refugee Agency – UNHCR-( www.unhcr.org ) has launched the “#WithRefugees petition asking people from across the globe to send a message to governments that they must urgently work together and do their fair share for refugees by:
- ensuring that every refugee child gets an education.
- ensuring that every refugee family has somewhere safe to live.
- ensuring every refugee can work or learn new skills to make a positive contribution to their community.
This is all easier said than done! Many Governments and other vested interests really give refugees and forcibly displaced persons a tough time. Some even force refugees to return to their country of origin contravening the 1951 Refugee Convention (signed by 144 countries) which defines the term ‘refugee’ and outlines the rights of the displaced, as well as the legal obligations of States to protect them.
Early in May, the media house ‘The Guardian’ posted a one-and-a half minutes’ video entitled ‘From War to Sweatshop for Syria’s Child Refugees’. This video which went viral on social media tells the story of Hamza who “ sits at a sewing machine in a gloomy warehouse in southern Turkey, where he works 12 hours a day, six days a week. The Syrian can perform most of the roles on the assembly line: he knows how to mould leather into the shape of a shoe, or attach its sole with glue. Today Hamza threads its different parts together with the machine, and his boss looks on approvingly.
“He can make 400 shoes a day,” says the factory manager. “He’s a real man.” Only he’s not. Aged just 13, Hamza is in fact a child. And so are more than a third of the workers in this sweatshop.
This is no anomaly. According to UNICEF, more than half of Turkey’s 2.7 million registered Syrian refugees are children – and nearly 80% of them are not in school. Across the wider region, UNICEF estimates that half of school-age Syrians – 2.8 million children – have no means of accessing education. Hamza is just one of millions of refugee children who have been affected by war and persecution across the globe. The reality and the cries of many of these children should melt hardened hearts!
India, has in the past, welcomed refugees from several countries including Tibet, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. In recent times, however, we have seen how xenophobia, intolerance and jingoism has become the order of the day. There is no national outrage when Africans are beaten up and even killed; or if North-Easterners are given a rough deal. The victim –survivors of the Gujarat Carnage of 2002 and the Christians who were attacked in Kandhamal Orissa still cannot go back to a place which they once called their home. We are untouched when millions of tribals and dalits are displaced by mega-projects and because of the profiteering of multi-nationals.
World Refugee Day should therefore not be relegated to yet another day of cosmetics, but a day on which we commit ourselves to the ‘nowhere’ people of our world: the refugees and the IDPs; and above all, to work for a more inclusive, just, and equitable society. The UN General –Secretary Ban Ki-Moon captures the essence of the day when he says “refugees are people like anyone else, like you and me. They led ordinary lives before becoming displaced, and their biggest dream is to be able to live normally again. On this World Refugee Day, let us recall our common humanity, celebrate tolerance and diversity and open our hearts to refugees everywhere.”
*Indian human rights activist currently based in Lebanon, engaged with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in the Middle East on advocacy and communications. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org