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World Refugee Day is a dangerous failure

Abdurahman Sayed
June 20, 2023

Today, June 20th, marks the UN’s World Refugee Day. But the catastrophic scale of the world’s refugee crisis – shown by the recent horrific loss of life in Greek waters - proves this day is an abject failure entirely unable to move the needle on an erupting refugee catastrophe.

As a refugee who fled my home country of Eritrea 35 years ago, I know all too well about the plight of refugees forced to leave their homes in search of safety. As of 2018 over 500,000 of my fellow Eritreans were registered as refugees, with over 100,000 seeking relative safety in in near-by Sudan.

However, the recent vicious conflict between the ruling Sudanese army and the Rapid Support Forces paramilitary group has now been raging for three months – leaving thousands dead and catalysing a new refugee crisis which the shaken region can ill afford.

With the fighting not ending anytime soon, aid groups warn the situation could develop into a full-fledged ‘humanitarian catastrophe’, one which I’m sure the international community will fail to mitigate. After all, global governments are increasingly unable to come up with swift resolutions or preventative strategies that adequately address the humanitarian dynamics of a crisis – let alone offer solutions for the other 100 million refugees around the world.

For example, almost a million Rohingya still languish in overwhelmed refugee camps in Bangladesh - six years after they were forcibly displaced from their homes in a campaign of brutal ethnic cleansing. And millions of Syrian civilians still live as refugees in neighbouring Turkey, 12 years since the beginning of the Syrian civil war.

In Europe, the war in Ukraine is poised to enter a new wave of brutal violence as Ukraine launches a counteroffensive against Russian forces. This happens just one week after Russia allegedly destroyed a dam across the Nova Khakovka reservoir, flooding whole settlements along the Dnieper River and displacing thousands of civilians.

With peace talks a very unlikely possibility, this conflict is likely to rage for some time, leaving the 8 million Ukrainian refugees facing a very uncertain future.

At the heart of the global refugee crisis is a bleak humanitarian aid situation that requires a swift and effective re-think of priorities and strategy. The humanitarian aid sector is facing a severe hangover from the Covid-19 pandemic, where national governments expended trillions of dollars propping up their economies while aid organisations struggled to raise awareness for the issues they were working on.

Now, inflation is wreaking havoc on economies around the world, raising the cost of living for both civilians and businesses. This has impacted the humanitarian aid sector hard, with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) being forced to make severe job cuts to save budgets that aren’t going as far as they used to.

Even the UN is struggling to fund its own operations, only raising $24 million USD of the $52 million USD it required last year.

To put it simply, instead of paying lip service to refugees, the international community of governments and aid organisations must get a grip and find long-lasting effective solutions.

Governments and aid organisations must get a grip Quote

For too long, countries in the Global North have spent their money on dangerous deterrent measures to ensure refugees are unable to seek safety on their shores. Yet these measures have shown to be ineffective and are even linked to disturbing human rights abuses.

Importantly these punitive measures also overlook how many countries in the Global North are struggling with a combination of ageing populations and a shortage of workers. 

To boost their flagging financial futures, countries will need to accept migrants for their economic and cultural value – something which will involve governments embracing a complete and utter attitude shift when it comes to the narratives around migrants and refugees.

Furthermore, it is crucial for humanitarian aid organisations to proactively explore alternative funding methods, moving beyond traditional reliance on rapidly shrinking government donations that often come with restrictions on how funds should be allocated. By seeking partnerships with the private sector, these organisations can tap into new sources of funding that offer greater flexibility and sustainability.

An exemplary illustration of such innovative partnerships is the recent collaboration announced between the Muslim World League (MWL), the largest Islamic non-governmental organisation, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Dr. Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, the Secretary General of MWL, has been a driving force in revolutionising the delivery of aid to refugees.

In 2021, he played a pivotal role in issuing a fatwa, an Islamic legal ruling, permitting Muslims to directly contribute zakat (an annual charitable tax) to refugees through a groundbreaking partnership with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Now, the new collaboration with the ICRC specifically targets those displaced by conflict, including Ukraine, and through its multiple arms (which includes a one-of-a-kind climate interfaith NGO called Faith For Our Planet) is closing debilitating funding and resource gaps that hinder effective support for refugees.

Ultimately, recognising refugees for a single day is insufficient to address the escalating global refugee crisis. It is paramount that the world embraces this essential shift in attitude towards humanitarian aid and refugees. Failure to do so will condemn hundreds of millions to a future devoid of hope.

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Abdurahman Sayed is Director of the Horn of Africa Centre for Regional Integration (CRI) and a frequent commentator on Eritrean and international media as a political analyst.

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