By Damtew Dessalegne
FIRST marked in 2001, World Refugee Day is held every year on June 20 as proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly. It is our opportunity to remember the millions of refugees and other uprooted people who are trying to pick up the pieces of their once-peaceful lives, to celebrate their courage and resilience and to rededicate ourselves to ensuring their protection, not only as a core value intrinsic to democratic societies but also as a principle rooted in international law.
A report released by the UNHCR shows that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time since World War II, exceeded 50 million people. A total of 51.2 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of 2013, up a staggering 6 million from a year earlier. This massive increase was driven mainly by the war in Syria that had uprooted 9 million people, of whom 2.5million across the border to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.
The displacement caused by the crisis in Syria, as in the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Somalia, Afghanistan, Colombia and other places – to name but a few -, is not only about loss of homes and economic security.
It is for many marked by deliberate victimisation of people, especially women and children, and a frightening array of assaults on human dignity. Rape and sexual violence are prevalent, employed as strategic weapons of war to intimidate the parties to the conflict by destroying their identity, dignity and the social fabrics of families and communities.
In addition to their efforts to forge new lives in strange lands, many refugees bear therefore psychological and physical scars from past abuses and suffering that can endure for years. But they find the strength to overcome adversity.
They have the courage not to give up hope. We can all help them to nurture – and realise – their hopes and aspirations by accepting them for who they are, seeing and treating them as equals and affording them the chance to engage fully in all aspects of community life. Refugees are the great survivors of our time.
Cyprus has achieved a lot in establishing and strengthening its asylum system over the last twelve years. Legislation is, for the most part, up to European Union and international standards, though there is room for improvement in certain areas. The integration of refugees remains the weakest link of the national asylum system.
A good number of the refugees are doing well economically in their new society, and some have become citizens. But far too many others have not been integrated whether economically or socially. Unemployment and underemployment is endemic, many who want to naturalise find barriers to citizenship or even long-term residency permit. The severe economic crisis Cyprus fell into at the start of 2013 has had a disproportionate impact on refugees and asylum-seekers. They have lost jobs, struggled to find even low-wage employment and seen access to social protection curtailed.
It is not enough only to extend to refugees territorial protection that allows them to enter and remain on the territory of the asylum country. Some passive tolerance of refugees – in the sense of just putting-up with them – is not what granting asylum is about.
Asylum is about opening the doors to greater understanding, fostering a positive and respectful attitude towards refugees and ensuring their full participation in the social, economic, cultural and political life of the host society.
It is about recognising that refugees are capable – if provided with the tools of language, skills development and employment opportunities – of assuming responsibility for their own affairs and contributing to their host society.
Refugees are resourceful individuals, some of whom have survived on their wits during long and treacherous journeys to the country of asylum.
Thus on this World Refugee Day, let us remember the millions of refugees around the world, honor their indomitable spirit and courage and pay tribute to the many humanitarians who help them.
It is our responsibility as political leaders, as NGOs, as experts, as faith leaders, as trade unions, as teachers, as journalists, as members of the legal community, as concerned citizens to give voice to the voiceless as we seek to empower the powerless victims of conflict and abuse. For as long as violent conflicts see no end, helping those they displace will remain our collective responsibility.
Damtew Dessalegne is the UNHCR Representative in Cyprus