Press Enter to search.
Press ESC to close search.
Press Forward Slash '/' to focus search from anywhere.

World Refugee Day 2023

June 20, 2023

Rebecca, please, when you get home, make sure you tell people about us. Tell them that we exist,” Ali implored after telling me his family’s story while we sat in the meeting tent in the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in western Tanzania in August 2015. The story began when his family first fled violence in Burundi in the 1990s. They had eventually been forced to return and they managed to rebuild their lives. Ali was a university student and activist who was forced to flee again in 2015 as election violence flared in Burundi. He—along with well over 100,000 people–arrived back in the camps in Tanzania. The camps were unprepared to receive such large numbers of refugees in such a short period of time. There were shortages of food, shelter, and water. “I know that I am lucky to have found a job with Doctors Without Borders,” he told me. “It is easier for me to obtain the things I need with our small salary. But it should not be this way. We all have the right to live in safety and with dignity.

“Of course, we eventually want to go home. . . if we will have a home to return to,” Viktor said to me as we chatted in the courtyard outside the Sofia Synagogue in June 2022. Home was Odessa, Ukraine from which he had fled immediately following the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022. He complained that everything was very expensive in Bulgaria and the government was not providing enough support to the refugees from Ukraine. Nearly half a million Ukrainian refugees had entered Bulgaria with most moving on to other countries. A few, like Viktor and his family and the large handful of other Jewish people sitting with us in the courtyard, decided to stay. Marina, a hair stylist also from Odessa, told me, “We are Jewish and the Jewish community here is very welcoming. Our kids can go to Jewish school here. Plus Bulgaria—its language and culture—are familiar to us. We feel safe and welcomed here.”

“Just a short update on Zaafirah–she has been approved for her visa to Canada and is just waiting for it to be issued. Thank you again for supporting the fundraising for her private refugee scholarship!” the June 2023 email from Kate read.  Zaafirah was a young Afghan woman who had fled with her brother, his wife and their child to Pakistan as the Taliban came to power in August 2021. Prior to the Taliban takeover, Zaafirah had studied English with the goal of attending college to become a nurse; she had even been accepted to a university in Canada and had been given a full scholarship if she could get there. The Taliban takeover thwarted those plans and after a two year wait in Pakistan and several visa application rejections, she was finally on her way. 

As we observe World Refugee Day on June 20, we are reminded of the plight of the millions of individuals like Ali, Viktor, Marina and Zaafirah who have been forcibly displaced from their homes due to conflict, persecution or terror. Their stories also highlight the 2023 theme of Hope Away from Home as they fled violence with the hopes of finding safety, security and a place to rebuild their lives.

According to the United Nations (2023), every 20 minutes people are forced to flee their homes. By the end of 2022, over 108 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced (UNHCR, 2023). While more than half of these people are internally displaced within the borders of their own countries, over 35 million have entered another country as a refugee and nearly 5.5 million are seeking asylum in a third country. All of these figures dramatically increased in 2022 as the war in Ukraine produced 5.7 million refugees, accounting for 16% of all refugees in the world. There are a similar number of refugees from Afghanistan; Syrians account for nearly 19% of all refugees.

The numbers are overwhelming. The individual stories such as those I have heard from Ali, Viktor, Marina and Zaafirah can also be overwhelming. But they are also poignant reminders of the obligations that we have to support refugees and asylum seekers. According to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, refugees and asylum seekers have certain rights such as the right to work, housing, education, public assistance and movement within the territory, among others. The cornerstone of the 1951 Convention is the principle of non-refoulement which states that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they have a well-founded fear of persecution or face serious threats to their safety or freedom.

These conventions are firmly rooted in United Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed in 1948, at a time when over 40 million people had been displaced by World War II, approximately 15 million following the partition of India and up to 1 million Palestinians by the founding of Israel. This foundational document clearly states in article 14: “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution” (United Nations, 1948). This proclamation is an important reminder that as the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers grow, so too does our obligation to acknowledge their rights and inherent dignity as human beings and support their inclusion in our communities. We must continue to advocate for their humane and compassionate treatment based on international law.

Additionally, we must continue to advocate for devoting resources to address refugee health concerns. In the course of my work with forced migrants both internationally and domestically, I have borne witness to the impact displacement has on both physical and mental health and wellbeing. The experience of migration is a key determinant of health with the conditions leading to displacement, as well as the conditions encountered during migration and resettlement, contributing to a lack of wellbeing. Refugees’ physical and mental health are particularly vulnerable as conditions, both acute and chronic, are often left untreated due to a lack of consistent and high-quality health care services. According to the World Health Organization (2021), most refugees experience distress, including feelings of anxiety and sadness, challenges sleeping, fatigue, irritability and hopelessness, which usually resolve with time. Yet is it also well-documented that refugees experience higher rates of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder than host populations. Culturally and linguistically appropriate care must be accessible to refugees in order to foster their wellbeing and strengthen their resilience.

On this the 22nd World Refugee Day and the 72nd anniversary of the signing of the 1951 Refugee Convention, may we continue to honor the humanity and resilience of people like Ali, Viktor, Marina and Zaafirah as they rebuild their lives and contribute to our communities.

United Nations (1948). Universal declaration of human rights.

United Nations (2023) World Refugee Day 20 June.

United Nations High Commission on Refugees (2023, June 14). Figures at a glance.

Back to Top