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World Refugee Day : world hits highest recorded number of people forced to flee

79.5 million around the world have been forced from their homes due to conflict, disasters and persecution. The equivalent of the entire populations of Ireland, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands combined. Many refugees are living in crowded camps, now facing the threat of COVID-19.

Lashi Yaw (64) had been living in his village in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar for 20 years. Due to conflict between Kachin armed groups and the Myanmar military, he fled his home and now lives in a camp for internally displaced people. Over 100,000 remain living in displacement camps after six years of conflict. Trócaire is supporting Lashi Yaw and many others in the camps with humanitarian assistance. Photo : Gyung Dau. Lashi Yaw (64) had been living in his village in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar for 20 years. Due to conflict between Kachin armed groups and the Myanmar military, he fled his home and now lives in a camp for internally displaced people. Over 100,000 remain living in displacement camps after six years of conflict. Trócaire is supporting Lashi Yaw and many others in the camps with humanitarian assistance. Photo : Gyung Dau.

Every day around the world, 30,000 people – more than the total amount who live in Kilkenny city – are forced from their homes, abandoning their entire lives in search of safety.

Today is World Refugee Day, an important opportunity to reflect on the refugee crisis and our responsibility to support and protect these people. Many of whom are living in refugee camps, facing the spread of COVID-19.

We’ve now reached a point where the highest number ever recorded have been displaced due to conflict, disasters and persecution. 79.5 million people, the equivalent of the entire populations of Ireland, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands combined.

7 key facts about displacement:

  • 85% of the world’s refugees are hosted in low-income countries, which are already struggling with high levels of poverty,
  • 11 million people were newly displaced in the last year,
  • Forced displacement has almost doubled in the last decade since 2010,
  • As many children are among the displaced as the entire populations of Australia, Denmark and Mongolia combined,
  • 77% of refugees are in long-term displacement situations,
  • 45.7 million people have had to flee to other areas of their own countries, while 29.6 million are refugees and others forcibly displaced outside their country,
  • A sixth of the world’s total comes from just Syria alone.

COVID-19 affecting Refugee Camps

COVID-19 is now a threat to people living in crowded camps that often lack basic sanitation. Cases have already been detected in the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh, in camps on the Greek island of Lesbos, and in camps along the Syrian border in Lebanon.

Thankfully, in part due to prevention efforts of Trócaire’s partners and other organisations around the world, the numbers of COVID-19 cases in camps are still low.

Trócaire is responding to COVID-19 with displaced people in places like Lebanon, Democratic Republic of Congo and Myanmar. We’re providing essential items like soap and hygiene kits, as well as providing information on how to prevent the spread of the disease. We are also ensuring frontline staff working with our partners have personal protective equipment.

Preventing the spread of COVID-19 in displacement camps in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar. Daw Ndu Roi Shan and Daw Hpau Chyang Kaw at hand washing awareness session at Lawng Hkang Camp. Photo: Ms. Seng Nu Preventing the spread of COVID-19 in displacement camps in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar. Daw Ndu Roi Shan and Daw Hpau Chyang Kaw at hand washing awareness session at Lawng Hkang Camp. Photo: Ms. Seng Nu

We have a responsibility to protect

While providing support to refugees in camps is crucial, we also have a responsibility to support those seeking protection, and to address the underlying causes behind why people are forced to flee.

The EU’s response to the refugee crisis in recent years has been shameful. Instead of upholding international law – laws designed to protect Europeans in the aftermath of World War II – we have opted to build walls and close our borders to refugees.

Furthermore, during the pandemic the situation has deteriorated. Further border closures and travel restrictions have resulted in undermining access to asylum and protection in Europe. Resettlement, which provides a safe pathway to a safe country for thousands of people stuck in refugee camps, are currently on hold for an indeterminate period of time.

The COVID-19 recovery phase needs to have global solidarity at its core and be inclusive. It should leave no one behind, including people seeking protection.

Promisingly, Ireland’s new programme for government pledges to push for an increase in EU funding to improve conditions for refugees in camps, and also to address ‘the underlying causes of the migrant crisis across the Middle East and North Africa’.

The commitment to end the direct provision system and replace it with an improved international protection process will also enhance Ireland’s legitimacy on this issue, and provide some hope for those seeking refuge from conflict and persecution who end up on our shores.

As Ireland now joins the UN Security Council for a period of two years, we hope that Ireland will push for justice and the protection of human rights for refugees at the highest levels.

No one chooses to give up their lives and start again in a new and often hostile environment. No one chooses for their children to lose out on years of schooling or their new born to have no legal identity.

Becoming a refugee is never a choice. This is not a situation we can imagine ourselves ever being in. Many millions of Syrians would have said the same thing nine years ago.

Today, and every day, we must remember that.

Caoimhe de Barra is CEO of Trócaire

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