Today is World Refugee Day, offering an opportunity to stop and reflect on the work we do collectively throughout the year. We normally mark this day by inviting former refugees to share their stories, allowing us to try to understand and sympathize with their lives and struggles. They recall the times of hardship and suffering and offer thanks to the people who help them achieve a different reality – that of chance and opportunity, hard work and progress – often experienced by those resettled to the U.S. The stories make us feel the pain they had been through and give us a chance to find the strength to redouble our efforts and offer even more hospitality. We celebrate by remembering the courage and dignity with which people around the world approach possibly the most difficult points in their lives and carry on with determination to survive and succeed. We celebrate the resiliency and potential they bring with them, making our communities richer, more diverse and certainly more interesting.
On World Refugee Day, we think of refugee camps – a tool that the “international community” uses to care for those fleeing persecution and war – and imagine long lines of tents and dusty roads with trucks delivering food. And for a large number of people this is still a reality. The UN currently estimates the total number of refugees to be in the neighborhood of 15.5 million. Just the Syrian crisis alone has created more than 1.5 million refugees – along with an unimaginable number of those who are displaced within the Syrian border.
While refugee camps are one way to deliver aid and protection to refugees in an organized fashion, increasingly refugees manage to find their way to urban centers, joining the scores of urban poor and posing a challenge to host and donor governments alike. In fact, more than 50% of the world’s refugees nowadays live in cities and towns, largely in the developing world. One of our Colombian colleagues called these poor neighborhood “misery belts,” a rather truthful description. Like other people, refugees usually gravitate to urban centers for obvious reasons – employment, but also to seek security or to escape from the harsh conditions of camp life and restrictions placed on rights. Many also move for the desire to find anonymity and go “under the radar.”
While hoping for greater security and better opportunities in urban areas, many find a different reality. Urbanized areas are frequently politically and socially divided along income, racial and ethnic lines. Those in-migrating have often lost all of their possessions, do not enjoy secure housing, lack supportive social networks, and may not have the skills and knowledge required to survive in a city. They may also lack or be deprived of the identity documents required to access public services such as rations or subsidized food/health. In the case of refugees and asylum-seekers, they may be formally excluded from the labor market or denied access to educational opportunities and health services. As “outsiders” and “new arrivals”, they may be the targets of organized crime, xenophobia and violence, forced evictions, harassment, extortion, etc.
CWS explored this phenomenon in its recent report: “Accessing Services in the City.”
This refugee day may be an opportunity for us to reflect on this new reality and learn more about ways to be a part of a solution for a growing number of urban refugees.
Erol Kekic, Director, CWS Immigration and Refugee Program