The Inside Story: World Refugee Day
Episode 97 – June 22, 2023
This week on the inside story... World Refugee Day.
The United Nations tries to focus attention on tens of millions of refugees.
From Afghanistan to Ukraine... Sudan to Syria…
we share the stories of those who fled their home countries,
and examine the conditions that turned citizens into refugees.
Now... The Inside Story: World Refugee Day.
The Inside Story:
ELIZABETH LEE, VOA Correspondent:
Welcome to “The Inside Story” I’m Elizabeth Lee in Washington.
146 countries around the world in 1951 agreed to abide by a United Nations treaty called the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
The World marks the passage of that treaty on June 20th every year on World Refugee Day.
The treaty was originally intended to help Europeans driven from their homes by World War 2, but over time has expanded to include anyone driven from their homes by conflict or political persecution.
And in the current day and age, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, the number of people around the world forcibly displaced from their homes is at an all-time high of 108 million.
We’ll tell some of their stories today, on The Inside Story.
After more than a year of fighting, the damage caused by Russia's invasion still haunts a vast majority of the Ukrainian population. While some opted to stay, the Ukraine government says around 18 percent of Ukraine’s population fled their homeland. Thousands sought refuge in neighboring Poland. As part of our World Refugee Day coverage, VOA traveled to the outskirts of Warsaw to visit a center that serves as a temporary home for thousands of displaced Ukrainians. VOA's Lesia Bakalets has more.
LESIA BAKALETS, Reporting for VOA:
This building on the edge of Warsaw once served as a Global Expo exhibit hall. Since March 2022, it has become a refugee center for Ukrainians. Sixty-year-old Tayanna Lada has lived here for about a year.
Kuzya the cat and a collection of silver rings – the main treasures Lada has brought from her hometown, Zaporizhzhia. She decided to flee after Russian forces shelled her neighborhood.
Tayanna Lada, Ukrainian refugee:
A rocket landed next to the house. It was almost 5 a.m. And, in principle, it is not scary to die. It's scary when you get mutilated.
The refugee center where Tayana lives is private. It is financed by Polish and Ukrainian businesspeople and nonprofit organizations. Here, she has as many as one thousand neighbors, the majority women and children. All live in this huge hall.
At the beginning, cots lay near each other. Several months ago, short plywood dividers were built. This is the only privacy refugees can count on: doors and walls are prohibited for fire safety.
Tayanna Lada, Ukrainian Refugee:
This is our home now, maybe, for a long time.
There are washing machines and showers. Each aisle has charging stations. The dining hall is in the next room.
Olena Kondratiuk from Vinnytsia is in charge here.
Olena Kondratiuk, Ukrainian Refugee:
Three of my kitchen team members are from Crimea; they fled through Russia. Four are from Donetsk, two are from Zaporizhzhya. There is nowhere for them to return until the war ends.
At the time I arrived, we had two halls wholly filled. It was like this - a bed next to a bed. There were about two thousand people: children were screaming, and dogs and cats.
Inna Zakharchenko, Ukrainian Refugee:
In the elementary school, we have 23 students from first to fourth grade. We work according to the program of the Ukrainian school. We comply with all norms, and all types of work, as we learned in Ukraine.
Zakharchenko is a teacher and lives in the center as well. She and her daughter fled from Nova Kakhovka. She says she finds consolation in teaching here.
Inna Zakharchenko, Ukrainian refugee:
For me, this is an opportunity to get out of bed. Because I fell into depression, I had a feeling that life is over for me.
Many of the center's residents share those feelings. Volunteers try to help them to find a job or better accommodation if they can afford it. But most cannot. Some are dreaming of returning home, while others have come to accept that this may never happen.
Turkey is known for its cultural diversity. It also hosts more refugees than any other country in the world, including over 3 million Syrians escaping the civil war.
Newly reelected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is standing by his refugee policy of admitting millions of refugees, mainly Syrians, into Turkey and allowing them to stay despite growing public opposition. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.
DORIAN JONES, VOA Correspondent:
Many Syrian refugees who fled to Turkey lost more than their homes and their country. 18-year-old Semir, who only wanted to be identified by his first name, lost his parents and four siblings in the civil war; he lost his legs, but says he hopes to walk again.
Semir, Syrian Refugee:
They helped me a lot with everything, praise be to God.
The Istanbul orthotic prosthetic center was set up by Turkey's Humanitarian Relief Foundation as well as the International Doctors Association.
It uses state-of-the-art technology under the supervision of Dr. Yasar Tatar.
Dr. Yasar Tatar, Istanbul Orthotic Prosthetic Center.
Especially in Syria, there are a high number of amputees involving multiple limb loss. Burns caused by barrel bombs also posed major challenges for us. We have served around 2,045 amputees, and we have made approximately 4,000 prosthetic limbs. This is a huge number. Few centers in the world can make so many prostheses in such a short time.
February's deadly earthquakes in Turkey and Syria added to the center's work, as many people lost limbs in the disaster.
Turkey hosts over three million Syrian refugees, along with large numbers of Iraqis and Afghans.
Anti-refugee sentiment is growing, often reflected in graffiti.
Mustafa Ozbek, Humanitarian Relief Foundation:
Societal problems can arise from the arrival of a large number of refugees. Turkey's recent economic problems have added to this. On top of this, the elections saw some politicians in particular bring up the issue of refugees.
During May's presidential elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's challengers vowed to return millions of Syrian refugees.
Analysts say Erdogan's victory comes as a relief not only to refugees but also to the European Union, which pays Turkey to host refugees.
But Erdogan, possibly mindful of Turkish public unease over refugees, is now vowing to step up the building of homes in Syrian areas outside Damascus' control to facilitate the return of a million Syrians. How many will take that offer remains to be seen.
Along the U.S.-Mexico border, the distinction between who is a “migrant” and who is a “refugee” can be murky. Many “migrants” seek asylum. When they do, they become “political refugees”, a distinction that can affect their fate.
Not murky is a grim U.S. Border Patrol statistic. More than 8,000 migrant deaths have been recorded along the border since 1988.
VOA immigration reporter Aline Barros visited the county where the highest number of migrants who died ended their journey.
ALINE BARROS, VOA Correspondent:
A lot of attention has been focused on migrants crossing between ports of entry at the U.S.-Mexico border but Brooks County, about 130 kilometers north of the Rio Grande, faces a separate migrant crisis. More migrants have died in the country then in any other along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Unidentiefied ranch manager:
Right here, you can see all this trash. This is one of their layout spots.
Migrants who cross undetected into the United States often use Brooks County as a corridor to their next destination.
To avoid the Border Patrol checkpoint near Falfurrias, the biggest town in Brooks County, they walk for days across remote private ranches. Some die from heat exhaustion, dehydration or hypothermia.
Fernando Cervantes, Ranch Manager:
Last year we found a total of about five bodies or remains. Some were recent; some had been there for a while.
The ground is sandy. Temperatures often rise to 38 degrees and above. Landmarks are few, and it's easy for migrants to get lost or walk in circles. Cervantes says those found alive receive help and are turned over to Border Patrol authorities.
Fernando Cervantes, Ranch Manager:
We have found, last year, the same thing. We found probably half a dozen people just wandering around. They were really, really close to death already.
Those who are lost or left behind can sometimes call for help.
Benny Martinez, Brooks County Sheriff:
Every single scenario is different, depending on the call.
Sheriff Benny Martinez says more migrants die in Brooks County than anywhere along the border. When migrants call 911 for help, dispatch stays on the call with them for as long as possible. Sheriff's office staff also work with U.S. Border Patrol officers to rescue migrants in distress. Or to remove migrants' remains.
Benny Martinez, Brooks County Sheriff:
In the hot days, which we usually have, within 72 hours, they pretty much be gone already. OK, now, Border Patrol is real good. They have the EMT people. They go out there and apply the IVs quickly, and they start the rescue right there with a beacon.
Unclaimed bodies are sent to Texas State University. In 2022, U.S. border officials found the remains of 858 migrants along the southern U.S. border. In 2021, that number was 657. In 2020, 255.
But migrant advocates say those numbers are too low. Eduardo Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, a nonprofit that runs a missing person recovery program, says over 200 bodies were discovered in the past two years in Brooks County alone. He says finding missing people is difficult.
The cruelty of war continues to plague Ethiopia’s Tigrayan population. After escaping to Sudan to avoid a civil war, the outbreak of violence there has them now searching for safety elsewhere. Caught between two wars, many are resorting to desperate measures to find freedom. VOA’s Henry Wilkins has this report from N’Djamena, Chad.
HENRY WILKINS, Reporting for VOA:
Since Ethiopia’s civil war started in 2020, neighboring Sudan has received 70,000 Ethiopian refugees. Now, many find themselves caught up in the maelstrom of Sudan’s civil war, which started on April 15th.
An Ethiopian refugee in a camp near the Sudanese city of Gadarif, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear for his family’s safety, told VOA by phone…
Tigray Refugee in Sudan:
There is no medicine. There’s a shortage of water and food. Also, there is a high market price and there is also nowhere where the refugees can get money, even from family abroad since the banks are not working.
He says this situation has persisted since Sudan’s war started.
Although Ethiopia’s civil war has broadly come to an end, thanks to a peace process started in November, Ethiopia’s Tigray region is still far too dangerous for most refugees to return. On June 1st, Human Rights Watch said a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans is ongoing despite the peace agreement.
A report by the British newspaper The Guardian on May 15th said Ethiopian refugees in Sudan are falling into the hands of human traffickers who promise passage to Europe; some are even being kidnapped by them.
Also, speaking before Sudan’s civil war broke out, another Tigray refugee, whose name we have changed to protect his safety. He is from the Ethiopian town of Humera. VOA visited Humera last year and heard testimonies of vicious bouts of ethnic cleansing. He says he tried paying traffickers to take him to Europe through Libya rather than stay in Sudan.
Gebre Hadush, Refugee from Tigray:
We spent about two weeks in a huge building like a warehouse. They used to give us water and two pieces of bread a day. There were no houses there, that’s why we didn’t leave the building.
The people of Afghanistan have known war for decades, and thousands have fled the fighting or the Taliban, who regained power in 2021.
One of the places where Afghans have found a new home is Serbia, dozens of refugees enter Serbia every day, following a dangerous path West. VOA's Wali Arian spent time with refugees in Belgrade and filed this report, narrated by Bezhan Hamdard.
Dozens of Afghan refugees enter Serbia daily hoping to be registered and reach Western European countries.
Shaukatullah, who only provided his first name, says before reaching Serbia, he was deported repeatedly back to Turkey from Bulgaria.
Shaukatullah, Afghan Refugee:
We were deported four times. Bulgaria arrested us. They made their dogs bite us. They beat us. Other than that, they take whatever you have. We aced many difficulties reaching Serbia. Now we are in Serbia in a camp.
The refugees here have taken treacherous routes to Europe, traveling through Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria to reach Serbia.
For decades, Serbia served as an avenue for migrants to reach Western Europe; however, it is now more challenging for refugees to go from Serbia to their preferred destinations.
According to a U.N. refugee agency report, Afghans made up 36% of the nearly 130,000 refugee arrivals in Serbia in 2022. Syrian refugees were in second place, with 29%.
Almost 900,000 Palestinians living in the West Bank are classified as refugees, meaning they were displaced from their homes by Israel since they became a nation in 1948. About a quarter of them live in refugee camps which are crowded and poor and have frequently been the scene of clashes with Israeli soldiers. Linda Gradstein has more from the Balata refugee camp in the northern West Bank.
LINDA GRADSTEIN, VOA Correspondent:
In one of the Balata refugee camp’s cramped alleys, Umm Riyad Abu Shalal, mother of Palestinian militant leader Abdullah Abu Shalal stands in the rubble of her house.
Umm Riyad Abu Shalal, Balata Refugee Camp Resident:
The first time the Israeli soldiers came to arrest him, they fired through the windows and the door, but he escaped. The second time they destroyed the house, but he also escaped. But because they destroyed the house, and now the whole family of nine has no place to go.
As Abu Shalal’s mother recounts the Israeli raid from two weeks ago, young men start running through the alleys as news spreads that Israeli undercover troops have entered the camp again.
Balata is the West Bank’s largest refugee camp. 30,000 Palestinians live in an area of just one quarter of a square kilometer. Like all refugee camps in the West Bank, it is run by the U.N., which is struggling after a drop in donations. A four-month strike that cut all services to the camp, including schools and health clinics, just recently ended.
Almost two thirds of the Palestinians living in Balata are under the age of 25. They say they want an independent Palestinian state but don’t see much chance of it. So, they have turned to guns and say they will force Israel and the Palestinian Authority to give them their rights.
Lack of funding is hampering the U.N. refugee agency and its ability to support thousands of displaced people living in Kenya’s urban environments. This financial shortfall hasn’t stymied progress but has become the catalyst to spark a refugee-led organization in building education, protection, and business skills. From Nairobi, VOA’s Mohammed Yusuf has more on the Youth Voices Community.
MOHAMMED YUSUF, Reporting for VOA:
Funding shortages have caused UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, to reduce the assistance it offers to more than 570,000 refugees living in Kenyan camps and urban areas in recent years.
The agency says as of June 15 it has received only 31 percent of the $153 million required funding to adequately meet the needs of these refugees.
In response, urban refugees in Nairobi are learning new skills to survive and start their own businesses. They receive training in online product selling at the Youth Voices Community Center, a refugee-founded-and-led organization that empowers urban refugees.
Founded in 2016, and in collaboration with other independent groups, at least 120 refugees have benefited from the business training in the past 12 months.
Mirani Mamisa – Refugee:
As a refugee, my life can change anytime. If I start my business, it can change my life. I can't continue to live like this.
The theme for this year's World Refugee Day is 'hope away from home,' and this hope is being encouraged here in Kenya.
As we report on World Refugee Day, here is a story of overcoming obstacles.
A Somali woman has announced her candidacy for mayor of St. Louis Park, a city in the U.S. state of Minnesota. If elected, she would become the first Muslim and Somali mayor in the state. Mohamud Mascadde has this story from Minneapolis, narrated by Salem Solomon.
Nadia Mohamed, St. Louis Park Mayoral Candidate:
I am running for mayor of St Louis Park.
SALEM SOLOMON, VOA Correspondent:
Nadia Mohamed, an at-large member of the St. Louis Park, Minnesota, City Council is vying to become the first Somali mayor in the state’s history.
Mohamed, 26, came to St. Louis Park, a western suburb of Minneapolis, as a 10-year-old refugee.
In 2019, she made history by becoming the city’s first Muslim and first Somali council member. She was also the youngest ever elected.
Mohamed said her love for the city pushed her to run for the top public office.
Nadia Mohamed, St. Louis Park Mayoral Candidate:
I love the city. I love St. Louis Park. I’ve grown to love every part of it. And I think this is a natural step away from towards the next step, right?”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, St. Louis Park has a population of about 50,000, mostly white, but its residents of color have nearly doubled since the 2000 census and now make up close to 20% of the population.
Mohamed says she will focus on expanding access to affordable housing, promoting homeownership for people of color, and empowering small businesses.
Nadia Mohamed, St. Louis Park Mayoral Candidate
The home ownership rates in St. Lous Park for people of color is very, very low. So, I want to make sure that people are able to own their homes and build that wealth. I also want to focus on small businesses, making sure that people can come to St Louis Park, by their small business and own it.
Minnesota is home to the largest Somali community in the United States, and Mohamed says becoming a mayor is a way to show anything is possible.
Nadia Mohamed, St. Louis Park Mayoral Candidate:
I think it means that anybody can be anything. Honestly, I think visual representation absolutely matters, right? But we are not here just to represent. We’re here so that we can do good work.
Mohamed is currently the only candidate. The election is slated to take place in November.
For Mohamud Mascadde in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Abdulaziz Osman in Washington, Salem Solomon, VOA News.
Before we say goodbye, here is a preview of VOA’s documentary “Fear Freedom/Uyghur” which will air in next week’s show.
Kasim Kashgar, Uyghur in Exile:
Sometimes, like mentally, sometimes you just lie in your bed, but you can't just get up. You ask yourself, what, what is this? Oh, that's fear.
I've seen dozens of friends, personal mentors, teachers and some relatives
being targeted. They had been interned, imprisoned, killed.
Shohrat Zakir, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Then Governor:
In fact, the vocational education and training centers in Xinjiang are schools. All trainees are given free board and lodging. Their personal dignity is inviolable.
I work as a journalist at Voice of America.
My beat at VOA is news about Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China.
Every time I cover news, do interviews and read reports about the repression against the Uyghurs, to me, it’s always reliving the trauma that I have lived.
Stay up to date with all the news at VOANews.com. Follow us on Instagram and Facebook at VOA News. Follow me on Twitter at @ELeeTV1. Catch up on past episodes at our free streaming service, VOA Plus. For all of those behind the scenes who brought
you today’s show, See you then, for The Inside Story.