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UN's World Refugee Day Celebrates Courage and Contributions of Refugees

Myanmar refugees living in Delhi pray outside UNHCR office on the occasion of World Refugee Day in New Delhi, India, June 20, 2023.
Myanmar refugees living in Delhi pray outside UNHCR office on the occasion of World Refugee Day in New Delhi, India, June 20, 2023.

At a time of growing hostility toward refugees, the United Nations is marking World Refugee Day to honor the courage and contributions to society of people forcibly uprooted from their homes by war, persecution, human rights abuses, climate change and other horrors.

This year's World Refugee Day shines a light on the plight of 35.4 million refugees and asylum seekers, on their needs and legal rights for international protection.

In marking the day, United Nations officials are calling for concrete steps to improve conditions for refugees and their host communities. They also are advocating for solutions that would offer refugees the opportunity to build a viable future for themselves and their families.

"I am here to tell the rest of the world that we can and must do more to offer such hope, opportunities and solutions to refugees, wherever they are and whatever the context," said Filippo Grandi, U.N. high commissioner for refugees at a World Refugee Day event in Kalobeyei, Kenya.

Speaking at a ceremony held at the Kakuma Refugee Camp, the world's largest, Grandi praised the Kenyan government for its plans "to roll out innovative and inclusive policies."

He said, "this will allow many of the half a million refugees and asylum-seekers it hosts to work and live side by side with Kenyans and encourage self-reliance, grow the economy, and reduce dependence on humanitarian aid."

This year's theme "Hope away from Home" focuses on the power of inclusion and solutions for refugees, many of whom have been living in limbo for decades because they lack the opportunity to rebuild their lives in host countries or in countries of resettlement.

Explainer: World Refugee Day 2023 
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"Refugees are often portrayed as being either a drain on society or passive recipients of humanitarian aid, charity and good will," said Matthew Saltmarsh, UNHCR head of news and media. "We want to very much move away from that pre-conception."

Saltmarsh told VOA, "When refugees are given the opportunity to work and to contribute to a society, they nearly always jump at the chance. They are very motivated," he said.

"Their priority is to get themselves on their feet, to support their families, to educate their children," he said, "but more often than not to contribute to their new society as a way of being able to thank that society for helping them when they needed that help."

However, Saltmarsh noted that when refugees are parked in a settlement or camp in a remote area without access to livelihoods, "they will remain passive recipients of humanitarian handouts."

"But if they are given the opportunity to integrate or to be included in their society, they then can become so much more and contribute so much more to that society," he said.

Numbers growing

UNHCR's annual Global Trends in Forced Displacement report found that a record 108.4 million people had been forcibly displaced at the end of 2022, with the war in Ukraine being the top driver of displacement last year.

That number has since risen to more than 110 million forcibly displaced, largely due to the outbreak of conflict April 15 in Sudan. Fighting between the Sudanese army and paramilitary Rapid Support Forces has triggered the exodus of more than half a million refugees to neighboring countries and caused 1.42 million to become newly displaced inside the country.

World Refugee Day: The Crisis in Numbers
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Belying common perceptions, the UNHCR reports that 76% of the world's refugees are hosted in low-and middle-income countries, not in wealthy nations, and that sub-Saharan Africa hosts one in five of all refugees globally.

Saltmarsh notes that anti-refugee and anti-immigrant sentiment has grown as the number of forcibly displaced has increased. This, he said, has led to a rise in xenophobia and hate speech.

"Refugees are often scapegoated, particularly when a domestic situation becomes more difficult. When an economy turns down, it is quite easy to point a finger and blame an outsider."

He said the dramatic rise in refugee numbers also has resulted in stiff competition for scarce resources to fund humanitarian operations, noting that African refugee operations are among the most severely underfunded in the world.

This, he said, has forced the UNHCR to cut back on many essential programs.

"So, for example, last year when there was an outbreak of Ebola in Uganda, we were unable to source at that time any hygiene and soap and cleaning supplies for the refugees in that country. There also had to be some cutbacks in basic assistance for health care in Uganda for the UNHCR."

He said, "We have seen similar examples for other parts of Africa. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we have had to cut our women's engagement programs as well as some of our self-reliance, economic inclusion programs and even some very basic humanitarian assistance like housing and settlements."

In a message for World Refugee Day, U.N. Secretary General, Antonio Guterres described the perseverance of refugees in the face of adversity as "inspiring."

He said, "Refugees represent the very best of the human spirit. They need and deserve support and solidarity—not closed borders and pushbacks." And he added, "We need much stronger political will to make peace so refugees can return safely to their homes."