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World Refugee Day

Posted 18/06/2013 by Harriet Spinks




Image source: UNHCR
 
On Thursday 20 June people around the world will celebrate World Refugee Day, which was first marked in 2001 following the adoption of a UN General Assembly resolution in December 2000. World Refugee Day is an opportunity to increase awareness about the world’s growing number of refugees, asylum seekers and forcibly displaced people. Events will be held around the world, including in Australia, to celebrate the achievements of refugees and highlight the many challenges they still face.

When the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was first adopted in the 1950s there were an estimated 1.5 million refugees worldwide. By the time World Refugee Day was first celebrated in 2001, the total population of concern to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was estimated at 19.8 million, including 12 million refugees, 940 000 asylum seekers and 5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). The major country of origin for asylum seekers and refugees in 2001 was Afghanistan with Afghans comprising a third of the global refugee population.

By the end of 2011 the UNHCR estimated that there were 42.5 million people forcibly displaced due to conflict and persecution, including 15.2 million refugees, 26.4 million IDPs and 895 000 asylum seekers. Afghanistan remained the leading county of origin for refugees.

The vast majority of asylum seekers and refugees are hosted in developing countries (usually in close proximity to the conflict zones), so the burden of assisting the world’s asylum seekers and refugees actually falls to some of the world’s poorest countries. According to UNHCR data, Pakistan is host to the largest number of refugees worldwide, mostly from Afghanistan. In comparison, the contribution by industrialised countries as hosts is very small—and Australia’s contribution is just a fraction of this.

When World Refugee Day was established in 2001 the then UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ruud Lubbers, urged industrialised countries not to close their doors to asylum seekers or try to lessen their obligations to refugees, arguing ‘In any case, no wall will be high enough to prevent people from coming’. At the time, the UNHCR noted the considerable challenges for the future and the collective responsibilities for the world’s industrialised countries:
In a world where serious human rights abuses cannot always be prevented, it is important to ensure that those who have to flee are able to find safety... It is our collective responsibility now to learn from the lessons of the past in developing new mechanisms for responding effectively to the challenges of the future.
In 2011, marking the 60th anniversary of the Refugees Convention, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, appealed for a renewed global commitment towards helping the world’s most vulnerable people. He pointed out that while protection challenges globally are now very complex, they are just as demanding as they were in the post-war environment that prompted the establishment of the UNHCR, and warned that the world faces many protection challenges in the future:
We have many reasons to be proud, but we also have much more reason to be concerned with the challenges we face at the present moment, and recognizing that unfortunately the root causes of conflict and displacement are not being eliminated and the next few years will be as challenging as the past.

Today the UNHCR acknowledges that the ‘changing nature of forced displacement is testing the international humanitarian system, and indeed the international community as a whole, in unprecedented ways’. However, it urges nations to work cooperatively towards better meeting the protection needs of the world’s most vulnerable people through ‘more international solidarity, and a recommitment to the fundamental tenets of protection, to enable the international community to face the present and future realities of global displacement’.

In Australia, refugees and asylum seekers have the subject of vigorous political debate for many years, despite the fact that the numbers arriving in Australia are very low in the global context. The UNHCR Regional Representative for Australia, Richard Towle, has commended Australia on its efforts to assist refugees, but lamented the nature of recent political and public debate concerning asylum seekers arriving by boat. He urges Australia to take a leadership role in protecting the rights of refugees, and continue to engage other countries in the region to improve the protection available to refugees and asylum seekers:
UNHCR is concerned that asylum in Australia is very much at a cross roads – whether to continue down the path of ever more restrictive and deterrence-based policies and practices - or, to redouble efforts that engage other countries in the region through meaningful cooperation and collaboration.



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