— Thursday is World Refugee Day
- and the United Nations says the number of refugees worldwide is at its highest in 18 years, at over 45 million people. The Syrian conflict is a major driver behind the increase.
Four-year-old Shahad laughs and jokes with her older sister in their makeshift home. She appears a happy, young girl; but the scars and burn marks on her smiling face tell the story of her beginnings as a refugee.
In September 2012, her home near the Syrian city of Hama was destroyed.
Shahad’s father, Yehia, describes what he saw when he arrived at the house.
“We were pulling the wounded out from 10am until 3pm. Two of my children were killed,” he said.
Yehia took his two surviving daughters and fled to Lebanon.
Shahad has now become the face of the United Nations’ World Refugee Day, on Thursday, June 20.
But this one girl’s harrowing story is being repeated across Syria.
Antonio Guterres, the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees is currently touring Syria’s neighbors, and visited Shahad’s new home city of Sidon in Lebanon Wednesday.
“Lebanon is facing an existential threat and needs and deserves massive support from the international community, it is absolutely essential that the wonderful generosity that we witness here in villages like these is met by the whole world,” Guterres said.
Fadi Harkura of analyst group Chatham House says there is resentment that the West is not doing more.
“About one million refugees in Lebanon and around half-a-million Syrian refugees in Jordan are putting enormous strain on the local resources, on the local services and that’s also causing some negative feeling,” Hakura said.
There are many crises that remain relatively ignored - like the refugees who have fled the violence in Mali, says Doctor Unni Krishnan, Head of Disaster Response at the global charity Plan International.
“Plan works in Burkina Faso where there are thousands of refugees today. And even when the funding is coming, it is extremely difficult to raise funds for some of the invisible needs like child protection, education for refugee children, and psycho-social care and support,” Krishnan said.
The U.N. says developing countries - like Burkina Faso - host 85 percent of the world’s refugees. Krishnan says the youngest refugees sometimes are not even counted.
“Children who are born in refugee camps often live and they move on to the next generation, they move on to the generation after that. We have such incidences. So registering the birth and having that identity is crucial because that will allow them to access education, more choices in the future,” Krishnan said.
Fifty-five percent of all refugees come from five war-ravaged countries: Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan.
Back in Lebanon, Yahia still fears for his daughter’s future.
He says, "She has seen fighter planes, artillery, missiles. There is nothing she has not seen,” he said.
In Syria, the artillery and gunfire continue relentlessly. The U.N. estimates that 3.5 million people will have fled the country by the end of the year.