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Remember the Refugees

June 20, 2005

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The other night I reminded my children that Monday, June 20, is World Refugee Day. This date was established by the United Nations to celebrate the 1951 convention codifying the status of refugees. It is a moment to reflect and act on behalf of the voiceless multitudes who have fled across borders to escape persecution and who deserve international protection.

"What words come to mind when I say 'refugee'?" I asked my teenaged daughters. Their responses were instructive and touching: uprooted, fearful, exposed, hungry, suffering, exhausted, lost, uncertain, wandering, saved.

Saved? That was a surprise. But my 18-year-old daughter Casey was right. Millions of refugees have been forced to save their own lives and their families by fleeing their homes, often losing all earthly possessions along the way. For these weary souls, survival has exacted a staggering price. Facing these extremes, they need help and hope from the world's governments and people of goodwill.

With deadly consistency, conflict produces refugees. Name a global hotspot – Afghanistan, Bosnia, Darfur, Iraq, Kosovo – and you can be assured that masses of innocent families have been displaced by violence and warfare.

That’s why I founded Save the Refugees Fund during Cambodia's "killing fields" refugee crisis in 1979. I never shall forget the heartbreaking sight of the dazed, the dead and the dying, as I visited those refugees in camps along the Thai border. Save the Refugees Fund, I should note, evolved into Mercy Corps.

Over the last 25 years, I have visited humanitarian workers and the refugees they serve in every corner of the globe. Unfortunately, refugee status is not as temporary as the UN hoped it would be when the world body established the rights of refugees 50 years ago.

Consider this: worldwide, there are currently 12 million refugees and asylum seekers and 23.6 million internally displaced persons. Of greatest concern are the 7 million refugees – more than half the world’s total – who have been "warehoused" more than 10 years.

Warehousing reduces refugees to idleness, dependency and despair. Women and girls are exposed to sexual abuse. Boys are forced to become cannon fodder as child soldiers. Living conditions are frequently intolerable for the vulnerable people housed in these camps.

For many of those unfortunate enough to find themselves in this situation, the basic rights enshrined in the UN’s 1951 convention – to earn a living, to practice a profession, to enjoy freedom of movement – remain out of reach. Denying refugees the ability to live free, dignified and self-reliant lives while in exile is a violation of basic human rights.

This state of affairs should not be permitted to continue and here’s my call to action: join me in calling Congress to pass Senate Resolution 449, which encourages the protection of the rights of refugees and calls upon all countries to develop effective ways to end the warehousing of refugees. Being forced out of your home is bad enough; being forced to live in a refugee camps for years is unacceptable. To learn more about this resolution and how you can support it, please visit the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants website at www.refugees.org.

The international community must use its political and financial capital, technology and entrepreneurial spirit to develop and implement strategies that will end long term refugee scenarios, provide security and create a brighter future through education and livelihood opportunities. We have made some concrete progress since I visited the camps of Cambodia in the late 1970s, but we have much more work to do.

As this World Refugee Day is upon us, let us remember the homeless, the hopeless and the hurting. We are all God's children. As a global family, we should do what all good families do - take care of our brothers and sisters.