Each year June 20 is commemorated as World Refugee Day. With the global displacement of people at record levels, it is appropriate to set a day aside to reflect on the reasons for such a massive displacement and how policymakers should address these challenges.
Almost 80 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide, one in every 97 people, according to the latest figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The challenge of helping these people is monumental and requires real action. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in his World Refugee Day message, “We pledge to do everything in our power to end the conflict and persecution that drive these appalling numbers.”
Conflict drives 80 percent of all humanitarian needs, according to the World Bank’s fragility, conflict, and violence overview. Such strife is often linked to government repression or failure to protect the fundamental rights of all citizens, including those in vulnerable religious communities. This failure leads many to leave their homes in search of refuge. Other challenges, such as climate shocks or a global pandemic, compound these factors.
The global displacement figures include the 26 million refugees who crossed a national border, as well as more than 45 million internally displaced persons who are inside their own countries. With the Syrian Civil War forcing 13.2 million people from their homes, Syria remains the largest country of origin for displaced people, including 6.6 million who fled abroad and another 6.7 million who are still in the country. Other major sites of internal displacement include the Democratic Republic of Congo (5 million), Yemen (3.6 million), Somalia (2.6 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), and Nigeria (2.2 million).
The reasons why refugees leave their homes are heart-wrenching. As Warsan Shire so dramatically says in her poem “Home,”“no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”
As many around the world consider the global crisis for World Refugee Day, the big numbers—79.5 million forcibly displaced—must not obscure the single number that matters: the one, the individual each humanitarian or development program cares for.
According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), humanity is the first of the four core humanitarian principles. This means that “human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found. The purpose of humanitarian action is to protect life and health and ensure respect for human beings.” So a person-centered approach to humanitarian responses respects each person’s dignity and equal worth and then works with individuals based on their full personhood.
People are more than just the sum of their material “basic needs”—access to food, clean water, and safe shelter—because they also have immaterial needs—belonging, identity, and purpose—that are often connected to their religious beliefs and practice. Since these immaterial needs address the human person’s dignity, they are vital for vulnerable communities in conflicts and crisis settings.
Humanitarian programs need to remember individuals’ personhood and dignity, including their right to religious freedom, and not merely focus on the process and procedures of humanitarian assistance. Unfortunately, as a recent report documents, even though religious minorities are vulnerable to violence, persecution, and displacement, humanitarian programs still overlook them.
As William Avis describes in his report, humanitarian assessments need to “explicitly identify and examine the role of religion in refugee experiences.” Yet in reviewing nearly a dozen guidance documents, he concludes that “a rapid literature review found no evidence of specific policies on the inclusion of religious identity as a factor in data collection and analysis for planning and developing relief operations.”
When processes and procedures replace people as the most important aspect of humanitarian assistance, the results can be tragic. While money may be “spent well,” individuals and communities are unlikely to be “served well.”
Effective programs for vulnerable religious communities may need to include a twin-track approach, as humanitarian organizations do with disability or gender issues. So programs would address vulnerable and excluded communities’ full needs while removing conscious or unconscious roadblocks that prevent those communities from accessing assistance or development programs.
While development frameworks more effectively incorporate religion now, as Mariz Tadros and Rachel Sabates-Wheeler document in Inclusive Development: Beyond Need, Not Creed, protecting and ensuring freedom of religion or belief in development has been a missing gap in most efforts.
As the US response to genocide in Iraq shows, ensuring religious freedom in humanitarian programs may require legislative, policy, and programmatic efforts. Yet even these efforts can face opposition during implementation. To help, the Religious Freedom Institute’s guidance note Protecting Religious Minorities in Conflicts and Crises provides policymakers and practitioners resources to more effectively consider the full range of a person’s needs during humanitarian efforts.
So as we pause to remember World Refugee Day, let’s not forget to remember who those refugees are and ensure our responses serve the whole person.