June 20 is World Refugee Day. This year a report from the UN’s Refugee Agency, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), says global forced displacement is at an 18-year high, with 45 million people displaced from their homes in 2012. That number includes the over 15 million refugees (people who have fled across borders) and almost 30 millions internally displaced people (IDPs) who were forced to flee their homes but remain in the country. More recent displacements from Syria are not part of this statistic so next year’s report is sure to look even grimmer.
When I think about refugees I first think that there is no way I can relate to their situation. I am so fortunate to have so many security nets in my life that it is almost a guarantee it could never happen to me. I have a family that supports me unconditionally, even though I choose to live on the opposite side of the planet. I have a high education that allows me to find some kind of work, somewhere, maybe even of the fulfilling kind. I have worldwide network of friends that I can escape to at the price of a plane ticket. And if all that fails, I have something that even most Americans don’t have these days, I have a country with mechanisms in place to pick me up from my lowest point – whether that be life-threatening disease, unemployment or mental illness. It took traveling the world but I am finally grateful to be Norwegian, even with our quirks and shortcomings. A refugee has none of that. Their country could not, or would not, protect them. They had to flee with only the clothes on their back. Most families lose members before they reach the border to a neighboring country or a UNHCR camp. They have no money, no identity papers, nowhere to go. I try, but I can’t imagine that happening to me. Not really.
When people ask me why I want to study, report and write about such darkness I tell them it’s not dark, it’s reality. And we can’t afford to pretend we live anywhere else. Every single person on this planet is just one bomb drop/natural disaster/deadly epidemic away from becoming displaced and homeless. In most parts of the world natural disasters and a global heath crisis may seem like more immediate threats so they can’t be left out. I’ve read some scary numbers in sustainability journals that predict that the numbers we see today will be nothing compared to the coming tide of climate change refugees that we are already beginning to see. If the sea levels continue to rise we are looking at hundreds of millions of climate refugees when all coastal cities will start to flood. Compare that with the 15 million refugees we are unable to find new homes today. The unlikeliest of people may soon find themselves in the most desperate and extreme situation that can happen to a human being. World refugee day is a day worthy of contemplating both our blessings and life’s vulnerability.
What you can do to help: Donate to UNHCR by clicking the image at the start of this post (opens in new page)
And help create resilient, sustainable communities where you live for a better planet! The choice of future is ours.