This World Refugee Day, Let’s Welcome Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Nuri Mohammed is just like other boys his age: he likes spending time with friends and family and dreams of what life will be like when he grows up. He hopes to one day buy a store and run his own business. But Nuri’s life changed completely when he came home one day to find the military in his village, killing his neighbors. The military killed his parents and eight of his siblings. His last memory of his mother was of her pleas for him to flee. Nuri ran to a nearby lake, where a bullet struck him and injured his leg. He continued on, walking for three days until he escaped from Myanmar to Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh, where he reunited with his remaining two sisters.

Nuri is one of more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees who, since August 2017, have fled into neighboring Bangladesh, escaping violence and a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the northern part of Rakhine State. He fled as the military’s attacks included killings, burnings, rape, and other forms of sexual and physical violence. Women and young girls have borne some of the greatest brunt of the persecution — it is estimated that over 40,000 are pregnant, a significate number as a result of rape. Their lives are at risk once again as they lack access to comprehensive health services, and as the dangerous cyclone and monsoon season arrives in their refugee camps.

On another continent, girls and women in Nigeria also bear the burden of conflict. Since the insurgency of the armed group known as Boko Haram, almost two million people have been displaced, with women and children representing nearly 80% of the displaced population. Interviews conducted by Amnesty International’s researchers with 141 people, mostly women and girls, has revealed that the Nigerian security forces and allied militia have confined women to remote camps, where they have raped them, sometimes in exchange for food. Thousands have starved to death in the camps in Borno state since 2015. Those that fled violence have found themselves in conditions that violate their rights, abuse their dignity, and threaten their safety.

Around the world, refugees and people in need of asylum are living in a constant state of fear, wary that their lives or their children could be taken at any moment. Some are assailed because of who they are or what they believe, like the Rohingya in Myanmar, attacked by the government that should be protecting them. Others are victims of ongoing warfare, caught between the opposing parties. Today, Yemen, faces one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. About half the country’s entire population is in dire need of health care services as hospitals have been destroyed in the fighting. Closed border crossings, airports, and ports have made it difficult for aid to reach the population, leading to shortages of food and other necessities and causing deaths from diseases that could have easily been treated. Schools and markets have been bombed with civilians inside.

On our side of the world, Amnesty International has documented the worsening refugee crisis from the Northern Triangle region of Central America. Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala currently rate as having some of the most dangerous environments on earth outside of conflict zones, with homicide rates four to eight times higher than what the World Health Organization considers epidemic. Unable to seek protection or justice from ineffective and often corrupt criminal justice systems, people are fleeing their homes as the only way to escape violence and persecution. However, the suffering of those fleeing has been exacerbated by the U.S. government as it separates families at the border. Amnesty International has documented the detentions of grandmothers and mothers after they were forcibly separated from their children after requesting asylum along the U.S. Southern border. One grandmother, at sixty-three years old, has been held in detention for eighteen months. She fled Honduras to prevent her fourteen-year-old granddaughter from being forcibly recruited as a gang member’s girlfriend.

The responsibility to provide safety to refugees is a global one, established by the international community after the horrors of World War II. Unfortunately, the U.S. has fallen far short of our obligations to help these vulnerable people. The Trump administration set the number of refugees that can be admitted to the U.S. in 2018 at 45,000. And yet not even 15,000 have been resettled this year, with every indication we won’t even reach half of this terribly insufficient goal. The result is thousands of people left in danger, despite many communities around the country eager to welcome them to safety.

We have seen the eagerness and willingness of people across the United States to welcome refugees as neighbors, colleagues, classmates, families, and friends. This experience is a long-standing historical one, as our country has frequently welcomed those who sought safety and opportunity in our generous country. For many, religious belief and values have spurred their opening homes and hearts to welcome the stranger. For example, in Miami, Florida, residents honored their history of welcoming refugees and passed a resolution in March to welcome refugees into their community. The New York State Senate also embraced the U.S.’ immigrant past, invoking the Statue of Liberty shining the way for those seeking refuge in U.S. shores.

On this World Refugee Day, our call is simple: we can, and we must, welcome more refugees, help them rebuild their lives, and offer them safety. We must also support the millions of other refugees who desperately need basic humanitarian assistance where they have found refuge. We must call upon our elected leaders to uplift our historical commitment to welcome those seeking safety in our country and to offer humanitarian aid to those in need. This is not a moment when we can forego our responsibilities, hoping that someone else will step up. Today, each of us must do our part and mobilize our friends and family to join us. Let’s welcome refugees and create a safer world for all.

By Margaret Huang, Executive Director, Amnesty International USA