06/18/2015 05:42 EDT | Updated 06/18/2016 05:59 EDT

The Number of Refugees in the World Today Is an Unacceptable Catastrophe

Plan International Canada

This Saturday, June 20, is the UN World Refugee Day. It's a day set aside every year to recognize the plight of refugees and acknowledge the efforts of those who assist them, often in the face of life-threatening obstacles. But unlike other annual days marked worldwide, it is not a day of celebration.

Never before has the world seen so many refugees -- 59.5 million according to a UN report released this week -- half of them children, with the numbers growing daily. From seemingly intractable local conflicts in Burundi and South Sudan to regional ones in Syria and Iraq, droves of people are being driven from their homes, fleeing only with what they can carry on their backs.


Thousands of refugees who have fled recent instability in Burundi are being accommodated in Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania, with some new arrivals being placed in communal shelters. Photo: Plan International / Sala Lewis

Consider that 59.5 million number. Imagine that every Canadian was uprooted from our homes and communities -- that would account for less than 60 per cent of all of today's refugees.

There have always been refugees, but today's numbers are staggering as well as unprecedented. The international community, governments and aid agencies alike, are struggling to establish and maintain safe havens for this flood of humanity. Still, it is our moral and humanitarian obligation to care for people who are homeless, and often stateless, through no fault of their own.

Thousands of people throughout the world undertake perilous journeys every day to escape persecution or wretched economic conditions. Last year, about 200,000 people boarded overcrowded and rickety boats for the voyage across the Mediterranean to Europe from North Africa; some 3,500 drowned in their desperate attempt to seek a better life. Already this year, a further 2,000 have perished before the resumption of European sea patrols that have now saved lives although haven't been able to fully address the refugee influx.

Legally, and historically, the term refugee applies only to those who leave their country to seek refuge in another. These latest numbers, however, also include those who have been displaced within their own borders. Indeed, there are more than six million people displaced in Syria alone, now in its fifth year of a civil war recently exacerbated by the Islamic State's attempts to establish a caliphate.

For those of us working in refugee camps, we face daunting challenges in trying to provide essential assistance for such overwhelming numbers. We do not concern ourselves with the causes of the conflicts that produce these refugees. Solutions are beyond our mission and, frankly, our abilities.

Instead, our first priority is to supply the essentials of life -- food, water, and shelter. But we also attempt to help uprooted people return to some sort of normalcy. Children need to be in schools, adults need to find useful work. We also help people access government and stand up for those who have no government to access.


A woman sits inside a communal shelter at the Nyarugusu camp in Tanzania.

Photo: Plan International / Sala Lewis

However, the trick is to do all these things without turning refugee camps into permanent fixtures. That would allow the governments from which these people have fled to ignore their responsibilities. For, ultimately, they are the ones who must solve the problems that have created today's refugee tsunami.

Canada has an admirable tradition of helping political refugees as well as those seeking better economic opportunities. The Irish who fled the famine in the 19th century and the Vietnamese who sought freedom in the 20th century are among the varied immigrants and refugees that have built a stronger and better Canada. However, those numbers are relatively small when we look at today's refugee crisis. Canada can barely make a dent.

Nevertheless, all the world's nations have to embrace this catastrophe. The refugee torrent shows no signs of abating. Political pressure needs to be exerted to find lasting solutions to currently impenetrable problems. Only when confrontation and hostilities end will the refugee flow be staunched. At the same time, the urgent needs of nearly 60 million innocent and vulnerable people must be addressed. They require -- and deserve -- a humanitarian response from all the nations of the world.

So, on World Refugee Day we need to recognize realities but not despair. We need to focus the global mind on our collective responsibility. We need to roll up our sleeves and help those who are so deserving of our assistance while urging others to double and triple their efforts to end the underlying conditions that have created this unacceptable human catastrophe.


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