On Purpose

World Refugee Day – Crisis, Hope… and Opportunity

World Refugee Day

The term "Refugee" has become loaded with all sorts of political and social connotations, so we sometimes forget that refugees are just normal people. People just like us with all the good, bad and indifferent characteristics that make us human, but who have had to take the toughest of decisions in the face of conflict or disaster to answer that timeless human question: Do we stay, or do we go?  

I have been fortunate to have worked with refugees and displaced people all over the world, and I have seen the consequences for people who have decided to leave... and for those who decided to stay in areas of conflict. With the climate changing, political instability increasing in many parts of the world, shifts in population demographics, and communities thinking deeply about who they are and where they belong, the movement of people around the planet is only likely to increase in the coming decades. How we manage this is up for discussion, but ‘World Refugee Day’ provides a chance for us to think about the human beings behind the statistics and to ask ourselves, what would we do? Would you stay, or would you go....?

Most of us have experienced the stress of moving home. Deciding what to keep and what to throw out, checking that you haven’t misplaced all your important documents. Figuring out how to get all your things into the transport you have. All while wondering where your cat has disappeared to and whether it will come back in time before you have to leave.

Some of us will have had the additional challenge of moving to a new country or an unfamiliar part of our region. Extra forms to fill in, a new language or accent and cultural barriers, surly customs officials, and a climate and food you are not used to just adds to the overall stress of moving.

So, imagine the stress that over 100 million people worldwide, who have been forcibly displaced from their home by conflict, violence, natural disasters or persecution, must be feeling. 

On the 20th of June each year we recognise World Refugee Day to highlight both the challenges that refugees face, but also the hopes and ambitions that they carry with them as they leave their homes and set out to find safety.

Over the last few months, our television screens and news feeds have brought home to us the tragedy of the nearly 7 million Ukrainians who have been forced to flee as a result of the conflict in their country. Tired and frightened people clutching what belongings they were able to bring with them as they queue for trains or at border checkpoints, often leaving behind loved ones along with farms, homes, businesses, educations, and their aspirations for building their lives in peace.

Away from the media spotlight and the relative familiarity of Eastern Europe with its roads, railways, supermarkets and churches, many 10s of millions of other people have also fled in fear from their homes in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Syria, Myanmar or Somalia and a host of other countries in crisis. In addition to those fleeing their country of origin, nearly 60 million people are currently displaced by conflict or disasters within the borders of their own country, including several million in Ethiopia, the DRC and Ukraine. Internally Displaced People (IDPs) often face just as many difficulties as cross border refugees as they negotiate changes in language, culture and the practicalities of setting up temporary home in often extremely challenging and fragile settings.

While much of the narrative around refugees is about people “escaping” from war and disaster to build better lives in the UK, Europe, Canada, the US or Australia, UN figures record that over 85% of refugees are hosted by developing countries. Uganda, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sudan are all in the top ten nations for hosting refugees, and Lebanon hosts around 1.5 million refugees, accounting for nearly a quarter of Lebanon's total population, the highest proportion of refugees anywhere in the world.

The facts and figures on global displacement can feel overwhelming and remote, but as people working in the social impact sector, we have an opportunity to help shape the way people think about refugees both at home and abroad. I have been fortunate to work in support of refugees and IDPs in my past career in the humanitarian assistance sector and am now working with the team at West London Zone as an On Purpose Associate, supporting children and young people to build the relationships and skills they need to thrive academically, socially and emotionally. Many of the children and families we work with come from refugee backgrounds or countries that have seen large-scale displacement as a result of conflict and disaster. A report from the Childhood Trust earlier this year highlighted the challenges around poverty, housing insecurity, accessing social services, mental health issues, and trauma that children of refugee families face, living in London. There is huge social impact potential in supporting these children and their families to build lives in the UK and to make lasting and meaningful contributions to society as generations of refugees have done globally in the past.

As leaders in the social impact space we should be thinking about how refugees can contribute to our ongoing work around environmental sustainability, economic and social justice, and systemic change of the global economy. Refugees are, of course, not a homogenous group. They come from all backgrounds, nations, creeds, and cultures, and many carry with them the emotional and psychological scars of displacement and struggle.  For many, safety, sanctuary, and a chance to rest is their most urgent need, but within those 100 million people there is a wealth of knowledge, insight, and skills that should be utilized to help us address some of the world’s biggest challenges.

As we reflect on World Refugee day this June 20th, it is a chance for all of us to put ourselves in the shoes of those who have had to pack up and flee their homes, and to think about how we can support them both globally and in our daily work, to rebuild their lives and integrate into their host society. The consequences of poorly managed integration can be devastating for individuals and communities, both refugees and hosts, and can shape political narratives in a dangerous and counterproductive way.  

By being advocates for a humane and compassionate approach to refugees we can recognise the potential they have to help us build towards our goal of a fairer and more just society, while acknowledging their needs in a safe and secure environment wherever they have come from. 

Jonny Singh is an On Purpose Associate on the April 2022 cohort, undertaking his first placement at West London Zone. Jonny is a former RAF officer and international development worker who has worked with communities affected by conflict and crisis in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Myanmar, Tanzania, South Sudan and Nigeria.