Posted by: Nathaniel | June 20, 2008

Extending the spirit of World Refugee Day all year

Photo by Thomas Lee – “Unyama Gaze: displaced children in northern Uganda

Today is World Refugee Day, and it’s worth taking a few minutes to question what the status of refugees says about the state of our world and our country.

According to the UN, the number of refugees has gone up for two years, after a five year decline between 2001-2005. There are 11.4 million people displaced outside their home countries, with another 26 million displaced internally. In a sort of gross bit of putting-on-a-happy-face, the UN article citing the new statistics is called “UN agency assists highest ever number of refugees and displaced” as though the UN providing services were the story.

Almost half of the refugees come from Afghanistan and Iraq, the two theaters of American war these days. The exodus of Iraqis has had a dramatic impact on the capacity of refugee support agencies around the world. In Cairo, which has refugees from nations around the horn of Africa, groups estimate that more than 100,000 Iraqi refugees have come to the country. The mostly Christian and English speaking civil society organizations are struggling to keep up and provide appropriate services. Indeed, even some programs that were originally intended to help Iraqis have become a mixed blessing. Many from Iraq were given expedited refugee status, so they didn’t have to go through often laborious status determination hearings. Yet this has made them ineligible for other resettlement services from some of the major legal aid organizations.

There is little injustice that is more despicable than our current resettlement practices for Iraqis. Since the beginning of the war, an estimated 5 million or so Iraqis have been displaced, including more than two million who have fled to neighboring Syria and Jordan. Despicably, the US has resettled only about 5,000 Iraqis since the war began. Sweden, a country with 1/33 of the population of the US and which had no hand in the invasion, has resettled 40,000, by comparison. Its okay, though, because we’ve pledged $208 million dollars for support, or approximately 22 hours of one day of fighting worth of money.

One of the tricky things about having volunteer “days” or awareness “days” is the very natural tendency to box away the ideas or activities of those “days” and save them for their pre-alloted time, rather than allowing them to filter in throughout the year. This doesn’t have to be the case, but its always worth reminding ourselves that the point is not to allocate a day of our time, pat ourselves for the triumph of our compassion and moral indignation, and move on. Its to shout, holler, learn, and let some of that energy seep under the skin and come out in little ways each and every day.

With that in mind, here are some good places to start learning about refugees and humanitarian aid, and get involved:


The Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford – one of the oldest Refugee studies centers in the world; its multi-displinary approach has trained practitioners for 25 years.

Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo – another excellent program/research center that combines theory with practicial training and refugee support services

Forced Migration online – An incredible, incredible digital repository of research and reporting about forced migration and refugee issues – a Washington Post article about the state of Iraqi refugee resettlement.

Imposing Aid:Emergency Assistance to Refugees – by Barbara Harrell-Bond – the single most important work ever written about refugee and humanitarian aid. Available for free download here, just search for “imposing aid.”


There are an incredible number of refugee support programs. The best of them recognize the fundamental dignity, resilience, and talent of displaced peoples, and help provide the support people need to get back on their feet.

Forge – an innovative program to help refugees develop their own social and financial projects.

The List Project – a group dedicated to ensuring that Iraqi refugees who work for the American government in Iraq have access to support if they are threatened for their affiliation with the US.

African and Middle Eastern Aid / the Refugee Law Project – great legal aid projects for supporting refugees in the Middle East and North and East Africa

45 different action opportunities focused on refugees, aggregating by Socialactions

Support Nine Million, a joint campaign of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Nike, and Microsoft to give children access to sports and education

For the techies: follow the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Twitter feed, or join a Facebook application to raise money for the UNHCR

And finally, get out and vote for people who support long-term peace rather than unending war.


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