The World Refugee Day – June 20th, What Statistics Won’t Tell You and Hope for the Future

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Song performance on World Refugee Day in Mpaka Refugee Camp, 2015

Time to celebrate refugees and asylum seekers? June 20th was set by the United Nations to “commemorate the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees.” The day was proposed in 2000 and enacted for the first time in 2001, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

This year marks the 18th celebration. The number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced persons (IDPs) has reached its record high since 1951. Perhaps it could be because we celebrate them a lot? Just a thought.

I’m not an economist to give figures and statistics. In fact, my basic critique is that these statistics tend to eclipse the lives they represent and the core complexities of issues leading to such lives. The record number is 68.5 Million according to the newest UN reports. Okay. So what? The Guardian equates this number to “3 million higher than the total population of the UK,” and breaks it down into refugees, IDPs and asylum seekers. This, I believe, is to help readers put “the crisis” into perspective. However, if you are anything like me, the numbers will put you off, you’ll close the article and move on to check your recent Facebook notification.

Instead of these depressing statistics, I’d rather have a cool success story about a refugee family which immerses the reader into some little-discussed challenges. Perhaps, an article about a specific community in a specified country about how specifically the community makes lives of refugees less painful and more worth of living. This might inspire other communities elsewhere to learn how best to support refugees among them.

At the least, why not report exactly why these people are fleeing? I don’t mean the usual, to borrow AlJazeera’ words, “refugees are fleeing violence, war and persecution” and “We have an obligation to help them”. If you consciously click on a link to read about refugee issues, you probably know that already.

We are famous because of the statistics. We are forgotten because fewer reports dig deeper than the statistics.

As the public we deserve better.

Reports about refugees ought to be much more in depth; and not in isolation from the main political and economic factors causing multitudes to flee.

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Abro from South Sudan, Kakuma Refugee Camp, 2018

For instance, you might want to know who exactly is funding the two factions fighting in South Sudan, or providing weapons being used to kill civilians and force millions south the border to Uganda. To the best of my knowledge, South Sudan has no gun manufacturing industry, and what’s often termed “tribal conflicts” has much more powerful forces behind it.

This youngest country in the world has become more of a graveyard than a country. Its children are being haunted by extreme poverty in refugee camps despite the rich oil reserves which mightier nations are eyeing – if not exploiting already. In my view, statistics will serve only to rouse the ever-decreasing empathy from media consumers. On contrary, thorough case studies detailing the country’s past, foreign involvement and how it relates to domestic instabilities and the economics behind it all might lead to an understanding of these vulnerable people, and possibly incite some action from the general public.

Or let’s take the golden case of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Why are DRC’s minerals and other natural resources like timber being pillaged by foreign, mainly western, multi-national corporations? It’s an open secret that these MNCs fund conflicts. By causing chaos, they can plunder as much as they want without so much to fear! This (not so) outdated article by The Guardian points fingers at British corporations, but I find the research paper by Billy Batware slightly more substantive. It accounts the roles of neighboring countries like Uganda and Rwanda as well as local companies in these refugee-manufacturing-schemes. MNCs are expected to uphold international ethical standards, but the chaos they cause is so well orchestrated that they have no concern whatsoever about the million Congolese who are brutally massacred, raped, or forced to flee.

If only news articles featuring Congolese refugees were detailed enough to accommodate Congo’s conflict minerals, you might be able draw a relationship between the iPhone you’re using, the child laborer who mined Coltan and his/her cousin who ended up in a place like Dzaleka Refugee Camp in Malawi. That way IDPs and refugees would be much closer to your heart since you contributed to their situation in the tiniest way possible!

But who am I to be suggesting these implausible alternative reports on a World Refugee Day?

I’m just a two-decade old guy who will soon have spent one decade of his life living as a refugee, one of “the undesirable elite, the famous yet forgotten beings” as clearly articulated in my book “Refuge-e: The Journey Much Desired”. We are famous because of the statistics. We are forgotten because fewer reports dig deeper than the statistics.

My experience has made me acutely aware of the world’s irony.

I wish we would focus more on the root causes of global issues than always try to revolve around consequential realities.

But that’s not what politicians want! They want us to understand this year’s theme, “Now More Than Ever, We Need To Stand #WithRefugees.”

The under-representation or misrepresentation of refugee issues in the media neither celebrates refugees nor exposes what ought to be exposed.

The World Refugee Day has more to it however. It is about raising awareness; calling the wide world to stand #withrefugees .

Only if the world was to embrace this philosophy, we wouldn’t have refugees, or at least refugees who are not cared for.

On 2015’s World Refugee Day I was in Swaziland. In a show solidarity, three friends from St. Marks high school where I was temporarily studying accompanied me to the camp to celebrate the day. The four of us delivered a poem centered on “Ubuntu.”  Ubuntu is an African philosophy derived from a Ngoni proverb “Ubuntu ngumtu ngabanye abantu” (“A person is a person through other people”). Only if the world was to embrace this philosophy, we wouldn’t have refugees, or at the least, we would sincerely celebrate refugees as people worthy integrating into our communities, people deserving of assistance.

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Swazi Women Performing a traditional dance, Mpaka Refugee Camp, 2015

There were many remarkable performances, and my personal favorite was dances . Young refugees, mainly Burundians and Rwandese, performed traditional dances. A group of Swazi women from the Ministry of Home Affairs also delightfully danced to the awed majority refugee audience. It was a pleasant multi-cultural, multi-generational experience. For a short period, refugees were taken from the day to day miseries to a world of entertainment-fused-acceptance. That was possibly a platform where statistics did not matter, and the refuge became one with the refugee.

If the world’s greed and politics can’t exist without causing multitudes to flee, surely refugees can coexist with host communities. And every day could be a World Refugee Day. This is my hope for the future.


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