Posts Tagged World Refugee Day
They won’t go away if we ignore them. They won’t stop taking to the boats or setting off on their desperate, dangerous journeys if we refuse to rescue them or give them shelter. Nor would we.
Some of them have never known safety, stability, a home and a job and a school for the kids. Others had all of these things until something changed – a war, a change of government, a new ideology, an earthquake or a flood – and then had to leave them all behind. This is a humanitarian crisis but as Richard Branson said this week, it’s also a moral one. It needs political will, financial aid, but also human empathy and generosity, the instinct for fairness and hospitality. The answers aren’t easy but we have to find them, collectively.
Fifteen years into a millennium that many of us hoped would see an end to war, a spreading global violence has come to threaten the very foundations of our international system.
More people fled last year than at any other time in our records. Around the world, almost 60 million have been displaced by conflict and persecution. Nearly 20 million of them are refugees, and more than half are children. Their numbers are growing and accelerating, every single day, on every continent. In 2014, an average of 42,500 people became refugees, asylum-seekers or internally displaced persons, every single day – that is four times more than just 4 years ago.
These people rely on us for their survival and hope. They will remember what we do.”
– António Guterres, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, World Refugee Day, June 20th 2015.
Globally, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. If this were the population of a country, it would be the world’s 24th biggest.
Ordinary people, in extraordinary situations. Ordinary people driven from home, by war, persecution, poverty, natural disasters.
Greeks fleeing the destruction of Psara in 1824, Armenians in 1899, Spanish Civil War (1936-9), Czechs from the Sudetenland in 1938, Russian refugees near Stalingrad 1942, Partition of India 1947, Palestinians from Galilee 1948, Hungarians in 1956, Tibetan exodus 1959, Igbo refugees in Nigeria in 1966, Bangladesh in 1971, Ugandan Asians in the 1970s, Cyprus in 1974, Salvadorean Civil War ( 1975-82), Afghanis from 1979 onwards, Mariel boatlift ofCuban refugees in 1980, Vietnamese boat people in 1984, Rohingya people from Burma 1991 onwards, Bosnian refugees in 1993, Rwandans in 1994… And so many more, before and since.
On 25/6 September 1940 a man took his own life in a hotel in Portbou, Catalonia. He was 48 years old. He was a writer, an intellectual, whose work, cut terribly short as it was, is still hugely influential. He was Jewish, and had crossed the border from France, having escaped Paris ahead of the German army. He’d just heard that all transit visas had been cancelled, and that he and his fellow-travellers would be forced to return to France.
The UNHCR’s campaign for World Refugee Day focused on the ‘choice’ faced by refugees – to stay or to go, either one fraught with danger. Walter Benjamin – and many others – took a third option. He had contemplated suicide before, seeing Adolf Hitler’s rise to power. He’d recently been interned in France as a stateless person, and knew already that the Gestapo had instructions to arrest him.
His choice is made bitter by our knowledge that his travelling companion, Arthur Koestler, took morphine tablets too, but survived and escaped, and that the embargo on visas was lifted a few weeks later. As Hannah Arendt says in her introduction to Illuminations, ‘only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible’ (p. 18).
It’s also bitter because, if the scope of his influence on the humanities is so great on the basis of the work he published in his short lifetime, it could have been so much more had he lived. In the words of his friend Gershom Scholem, his ‘genius united the insight of the Metaphysician, the interpretative power of the Critic, and the erudition of the Scholar’. (Reflections, vii). Anyone interested in the city, in maps and labyrinths, in Baudelaire, Kafka or Proust, in text and translation, history and memory, will encounter Benjamin.
Walter Benjamin stands, in this context, for our loss, the loss of those who didn’t escape, and particularly those – notable and anonymous – who chose this third way. On the memorial to Benjamin in Portbou these words are inscribed: IT IS MORE ARDUOUS TO HONOUR THE MEMORY OF THE NAMELESS THAN THAT OF THE RENOWNED. HISTORICAL CONSTRUCTION IS DEVOTED TO THE MEMORY OF THE NAMELESS.
Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, preface by Leon Wieseltier, Introduction by Hannah Arendt (NY: Schocken Books, 2007)
— Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, preface by Leon Wieseltier, Introduction by Peter Demetz (NY: Schocken Books, 2007)
During the series of coups and counter coups leading up to the secession of Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War, thousands of Igbo people were killed in the northern territories of Nigeria. Many more fled to escape the massacres. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s Half of a Yellow Sun gives a harrowing account both of the pogroms and of that flight, from a number of perspectives – the Igbo heroine, in Kano as violence explodes, who escapes on a train along with many others, traumatised, lost and bereaved; the Englishman who finds himself at Kano airport as Igbo staff and travellers are identified and killed; the people meeting the trains as they arrived, searching for their own friends and family afraid to find them and not to find them.
As I read her account, I found myself shaking and weeping. I lived in the north of Nigeria at this time. I was a young child, 9 years old, and my parents shielded me and my younger siblings from as much as they could. But I knew that people were being killed because of their ethnicity. I saw the mob which approached our home looking for Igbos, knew that my father and a friend had gone out to speak to them, to try to calm them and deter them but without success. I knew of westerners arriving at Kano airport, to witness scenes of horror, some of whom got back on the plane as Richard does in the novel. I learned later of the people who my parents found hiding in the unoccupied house across the road from us, who my father took in the back of our car, covered with blankets, to the army compound where others had taken refuge, and of the train organised by another expatriate to take them all to safety but which was ambushed, its passengers dragged out and killed.
As Rob Nixon said, in the New York Times, ‘“Half of a Yellow Sun” takes us inside ordinary lives laid waste by the all too ordinary unraveling of nation states. When an acquaintance of Olanna’s turns up at a refugee camp, she notices that “he was thinner and lankier than she remembered and looked as though he would break in two if he sat down abruptly.” It’s a measure of Adichie’s mastery of small things — and of the mess the world is in — that we see that man arrive, in country after country, again and again and again.’
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s literary role model is often said to be Chinua Achebe, who himself was caught up in these events. His writing having brought him to the attention of the military who suspected him of having foreknowledge of the coup, he had to send his pregnant wife and children on a squalid boat through a series of unseen creeks to the Igbo stronghold of Port Harcourt. During the civil war which followed, his family had to move repeatedly to escape the fighting, returning to their destroyed home only after the war was over. His poem, ‘Refugee Mother and Child’, reflects those experiences:
No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon will have to forget.
The air was heavy with odors
of diarrhea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in labored
steps behind blown empty bellies.
Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s
pride as she combed the rust-colored
hair left on his skull and then –
singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life
this would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun (London: Fourth Estate, 2009)
Chinua Achebe, Collected Poems (Manchester: Carcanet, 2005)
Rob Nixon, ‘A Biafran Story’, New York Times, 1 October 2006
World Refugee Day, 20 June 2012
di·lem·ma \ : a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially ones that are equally undesirable.
Every minute eight people leave everything behind to escape war, persecution or terror.
If conflict threatened your family, what would you do? Stay and risk your lives? Or try to flee, and risk kidnap, rape or torture?
For many refugees the choice is between the horrific or something worse.
World Refugee Day was established by the United Nations to honor the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homes under threat of persecution, conflict and violence.