Oct. 24 is not just another day on the calendar. It is United Nations Day, an excellent time to take note of one of the accomplishments the world body has achieved in its 72-year history.
The global institution has made it possible for the economic and social development for people worldwide. There is, however, one issue that has garnered significant attention but regrettably has not stayed on the front page and is slipping from the public eye. UN Day is a good moment to return the world crisis back to the forefront: the plight of refugees in every spot of the globe. For the UN agencies whose job is to make a difference in these people’s lives, the problem has never been forgotten.
After the devastation of World War II, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, was created in 1950 to assist Europeans who had been left homeless from the consequences of the deadliest conflict the world has ever known. In 1951, the Refugee Convention was formed, defining what a refugee is as well as outlining the rights of displaced people. Moreover, it laid out the parameters for a country’s responsibility in protecting refugees.
The fundamental principle of nonrefoulement is the centerpiece of the Convention, stipulating the core understanding that a refugee should not be returned to his or her country of origin if he or she is facing imminent danger.
A few years later, the UN refugee agency won the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1954, for helping to save so many people who had fled their homes. Since then, over the last 50 years, the UN is still working on the frontlines assisting people escaping conflict, chaos and violence.
The agency’s work was only beginning when it was confronted with the Hungarian uprising of 1956, a nationwide revolt against the Soviet-backed government. The revolt caused 200,000 refugees to leave Hungary for the bordering nation of Austria, where they sought safety from threats of death. It was the Hungarian revolt that would set the stage and shape the future of how global relief agencies would respond to such humanitarian crises.
Today, 65 million people are now categorized as refugees. That is equivalent to the population of more than seven New Jerseys. Twenty-four people every minute must leave their homes, with 34,000 people a day leaving behind their countries to seek safer, better environments.
The Syrian conflict alone has forced five million people to move to neighboring states as the war in their country persists. Another lesser-known statistic about refugees also needs attention: 41 million people are displaced within their own national borders; these internally displaced persons are known as IDPs. The UN refugee agency’s founding mandate and operations have become much more complicated and cumbersome in recent years as well, ever since an enormous number people started flowing from Syria and regions of Africa to find safe port, upsetting the old rule that an asylum seeker must apply for asylum in the country he or she first enters after fleeing home.
Political events in Europe in the last few years have challenged this rule and as a result, people wanting to resettle or seek asylum outside their country are now stuck longer in refugee status in the nations where they land, adding to tensions in European and other countries and inciting nationalist fervor.
The last several months have witnessed a flood of new refugees — Rohingya Muslims — packing up from Myanmar to trudge through mud and other horrific conditions to reach neighboring Bangladesh to escape the central government’s campaign of systematic torture and violence. Human-rights groups and the UN say the terror campaign equates to ethnic cleansing. Up to 800,000 Rohingya have now been counted as relocating to Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh, as the number keeps rising.
One of the UN’s humanitarian-aid partners, Oxfam, is calling for more money to support the massive influx of Rohingyas in Bangladesh, with special attention to women and girls. They face not only violence at home but also as they travel and after they arrive in the overcrowded Bangladeshi camps.
The UN relief agency, in fact, is fighting displacement battles on several fronts, including in Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan and northern Nigeria, all of which taxes its resources. It is important to note that the international community must continue to provide the proper funding so organizations like the refugee agency can keep up its lifesaving work.
Unfortunately, many countries have decided that individuals who flee countries because of political violence or to seek a humane way of life are not welcome. We must support the UN refugee agency as it remains the go-to organization responding to refugee crises.
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Michael Curtin is a graduate student at the Seton Hall University School of Diplomacy and International Relations in South Orange, N.J. He is also editorial chair of the Northern New Jersey chapter of the United Nations Association of the USA.