The organisation that I volunteer for (the Refugee & Immigrant Advisory Council) is marking World Refugee Week on 15-21 June with a range of activities and events designed to highlight the plight of refugees across the globe. In view of this, and the fact that there has been an upsurge in the number of refugee-related news stories recently, I felt that this would be a good opportunity to write a piece on refugees. I will first focus on how we define a ‘refugee’, then talk about why it is so important to listen to the stories of refugees and finish with a couple of links to TEDx Talks by and about refugees. These talks all featured as part of RIAC’s Monday event for World Refugee Week (we watched the videos and had a short discussion session after each one). They each illustrate a slightly different side of the refugee story. I’m giving the one by Carina Hoang a trigger warning for rape – however, for those who can, please do listen to it, because her story is a great example of what I talk about below regarding the importance of believing people’s stories even when they sound too horrific to be true. This post was originally going to be a lot longer and more in-depth, but in the end I thought that it would be more effective to focus on one theme, which is the importance of giving refugees a voice and recognising that even if we can’t understand what it’s like to go through such experiences, it is important for us to show compassion and respect by listening to their stories.
First of all, how do we define which people are classed as refugees? Here is the UNHCR’s official definition of a refugee, as per the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees:
“…someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”
There are two main types of refugees. The first group are refugees who have fled their home country and are applying for asylum in a different country. They are also known as asylum seekers. The second group are those who are displaced within their home country, or living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries. The basic idea is that refugees are people who are leaving their countries because they fear for their lives. This is where refugees differ from immigrants – the latter group have chosen to leave their home countries in order to make a better life for themselves. The key word here is ‘choice’. One could argue, of course, that refugees technically also have a choice, since they could choose to stay in their home countries and risk death, but clearly this is not the same as deciding whether to move abroad in order to gain a better lifestyle for you and your family.
It is interesting to note that our views on certain groups of refugees can depend on how their situation is portrayed by the media, as well as how it has been viewed historically. For example, during WWII, hundreds of thousands of Jewish people fled Nazi Germany to escape the Holocaust. Because this genocide is so well-documented, almost everyone acknowledges that the Jews were at serious risk of death if they remained in their home country, so their flight now seems completely natural and justified. However, attitudes at the time were very different. Many people in France, for instance, described the 25,000 Jews who fled to that country as “economic parasites and undesirables” (Lamey, 2011), a phrase that seems shocking now, considering what sort of treatment they were fleeing from. After another wave of Jews arrived in France following Hitler’s invasion of Austria, laws were introduced that made it increasingly difficult for refugees to enter the country. In addition, Jewish refugees were barred from certain jobs and some were even sent back to Germany. Once France was officially at war with Germany in 1939, men of ‘suspicious’ political backgrounds – even those who had just fled from Nazi persecution – were interned and the Vichy government later handed over many of these prisoners to the Nazis for execution.
It seems absolutely incredible now that Jewish refugees, a group of people who had suffered so much persecution and discrimination at the hands of one government, should flee to a neighbouring country for sanctuary and encounter a similar level of hostility and ill-treatment. But this did not just occur in France. In Newfoundland, which was then a British colony, there were ambitious plans to settle several thousand Jewish refugees, but for some reason (it has been suggested the motivating factor may have been anti-semitism), these plans never came to fruition. Between 1934 and 1941, thousands of refugees applied for asylum in Newfoundland and Labrador. Only 11 of these applications were accepted. In addition, Canada only took in 4,000 refugees by the end of 1939. This record has been described as “the worst of all possible refugee-receiving states”. Several smaller, poorer countries took in large numbers of refugees during the WWII period – the Dominican Republic alone offered asylum to 100,000 and the city of Shanghai accepted 20,000 people (due it being under the control of three different factions in 1938-9, visas and travel documents were not required to gain entry to Shanghai, making it an ideal sanctuary for refugees). The generosity of these countries only serves to highlight the appalling actions of Canada, Newfoundland and several other countries who made it extremely difficult for those fleeing Nazi persecution to find sanctuary.
I have used the example of Jewish refugees to highlight two different points. The first is the fact that so many countries apparently failed to recognise (or simply chose to ignore) the real danger that the Jewish people were facing during WWII. Refugees are often reluctant to talk about their stories, partly because it is so painful to re-live traumatic experiences, but also because their accounts are so often met with scepticism. When people describe instances of torture, rape, abuse and murder, it can sometimes seem so horrific as to be unbelievable. We simply cannot grasp that such horrendous things can happen to a person, let alone an entire group of people. Our imaginations often do not stretch far enough to encompass such wickedness.
The second point is that, as I pointed out earlier on, the history of the Holocaust is extremely well-known and therefore largely accepted as true. This therefore makes it considerably easier for us to believe Holocaust survivors when they describe their experiences of concentration camps. But of course, the Holocaust is not the only example of genocide and persecution – or indeed the worst. There are many such horrors being inflicted on people around the world at this very moment and it is therefore imperative that we believe people when they tell us their stories of persecution and trauma. The Holocaust is presumed by many people to be the worst example of man’s inhumanity to man in history, but this is not necessarily the case – and even if it has been the worst so far, there is no guarantee that it will remain so. Human rights abuses are being inflicted every single day, in numerous countries throughout the world – and people fleeing that abuse are in vital need of shelter and protection. It is of course not possible to simply let everyone in regardless of whether they have a convincing story of persecution or not, but I would argue that it is better to have a bit more credulity and risk appearing too lenient, then to be overly sceptical and thus responsible for returning vulnerable people to violent situations.
If you are not otherwise marking World Refugee Week and you have been affected by the issues raised in this blogpost, I would ask you to please watch at least one of the videos below and listen to a refugee’s story. When a person leaves their home country, they lose all of their rights as a citizen of that country and have no status in the world until they are accepted by another country. There are currently 51 million refugees across the world and for the most part, they are a silent and, in many cases, an invisible group. If you listen to even one of their stories, you are helping to make all of their voices heard.
“Being a refugee is not a choice” by Carina Hoang: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JwkVk16xecw
“Promise and opportunity” by Parweez Koehestanie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gT8TQN-UHqc
“Refugees starting over” by Kathryn Stam: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gn3WhquBDBI
“Breaking the mould for refugees” by Menes LaPlume: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i-7nKdX3KtE
- Lamey, A. (2011). Frontier Justice: The Global Refugee Crisis and What To Do About It. DoubleDay Canada.
- UNHCR, (2015). Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. [online] Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/3b66c2aa10.html [Accessed 19 Jun. 2015].