Thursday, June 20 was World Refugee Day, and while you might have been enjoying a quiet evening at home, dozing on your daily commute, or complaining about your noisy neighbors, take a moment to learn about those whose homes are not so happy. On-going conflict in places like Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, and South Sudan caused 2012 to count the the highest number of refugees the world has seen in nearly 20 years.
Many stigmas and misconceptions surround refugees. Here are a few:
1. All displaced peoples are refugees
Globally, the UNHCR (UN High Committee on Refugees) estimates that 45.2 million people are currently displaced from their homes due to violence, rights abuses, or persecution. Of that number, about 15 million are refugees, while the remaining 30 million are internally displaced peoples, or IDPs, meaning that they were forcibly displaced from their homes, but never crossed international borders.
2. Most refugees end up in the U.S. or other developed countries
Eighty percent of refugees are in developing countries, leaving only a small minority that are resettled to developed countries like the U.S. or Europe. The vast majority of refugees live in camps in a country neighboring their own.
3. All refugees WANT to leave their home countries behind
A common assumption among Americans is that everyone in the world wants to move to America. Refugees leave behind family members, livelihoods, homes, memories, and traditions when they leave. Extreme circumstances that turn people into refugees, and while all are happy to be out of harm's way, many still long to return home someday.
4. All refugees are resettled to new homes
Less than 1% of refugees are resettled into new countries. Many refugees return to their home countries (either voluntary or forcibly), while others live their entire lives in camps, often in squalid, crowded conditions.
5. All refugees are granted new nationalities
There are 6.4 million refugees living in what the UN calls a "protracted refugee situation." All around the world, there are refugees who have remained stateless for decades and even generations.
6. As a refugee, you are given lots of free stuff
While the UNHCR was set up to provide protection and support for these stateless peoples, conditions in many camps remain appalling. Extreme desperation due to homelessness, hunger, and violence forces refugees to survive in any ways they can. Refugee camps, especially long-term camps, develop into miniature cities, complete with hustling, enterprising youths, elected officials, and patrolling police forces. Hardly leeching off the system, refugees are among some of the most resilient and innovative people.
7. Refugees are safe once they leave their home countries
After escaping danger in their home countries, refugees often face other perils in the countries to which the fled. Some face new forms of persecution and alienation due to their foreign status. Others face the same dangers they fled from, only now more up close. After the 1994 Rwandan genocide, those who fled the violence found themselves living in the same camps as the genocidal leaders and organizers.
So next time you go to complain about the water pressure in your shower, the size of your dorm room, or your grumpy landlord, stop and be thankful you have a home to complain about.