World Refugee Day

At least among Americans, I think, one of the least known consequences of World War II is that it left in its wake at least 50 million refugees — about one in 45 persons alive at the time. The policies of Hitler and Stalin had dislocated some 30 million persons just between 1939 and 1943, and millions more in Europe and Asia lost their homes as the war reached its terrible conclusion in 1943-1945. The United Nations agency set up to deal with “displaced persons” eventually numbered 12,000 staff members and distributed about $4 billion in aid. It was the worst refugee crisis in human history.

Until now.

Syrian refugees at a clinic in Jordan
A few of the 600,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan – Creative Commons (UK Dept of International Development)

On this World Refugee Day, please pause to consider that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees now reports 60 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) — one in 122 people now alive. The number of IDPs is particularly concerning, since it has grown by 300% since 2004.

One third of the overall number comes from Syria and Iraq, two countries afflicted by internecine conflict and ISIS alike, but David Graham’s excellent, troubling report on the crisis points out lesser-known tragedies: e.g., 23% of the world’s IDPs are in Colombia, where the government continues to battle leftist insurgents. The UNHCR report points to fifteen conflicts around the world, eight of them in Africa. In 2014 alone over 200,000 people left Africa and the Middle East and tried to cross the Mediterranean Sea in search of refuge in Europe; 3,500 died or are still missing.

And some significant portion of the crisis is fueled — directly or indirectly — by climate change, as Pope Francis argued in paragraph 25 of his new encyclical:

There has been a tragic rise in the number of migrants seeking to flee from the growing poverty caused by environmental degradation. They are not recognized by international conventions as refugees; they bear the loss of the lives they have left behind, without enjoying any legal protection whatsoever.

“The drama is that if people think that humanitarians can clean up the mess,” UNHCR Antonio Guterres told the BBC. “It’s no longer possible. We have no capacities to pick up the pieces.” Impossibly, a crisis of this magnitude has mostly stayed off the radar of those of us who need never worry about finding food and shelter. Or, as the pope lamented:

Refugee camp in the Congo
A refugee camp in the Congo – Creative Commons (Julien Harneis)

Sadly, there is widespread indifference to such suffering, which is even now taking place throughout our world. Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.

At the very least, I hope this is convicting for Christians, who bear the name of a one-time refugee and whose scriptures authoritatively require care for such “foreigners.” Among other responses, consider giving to World Vision’s Syrian refugee fund or support the work of my denomination in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where three million people are still internally displaced as the country tries to find peace after years of civil war.


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