World Refugee Day 2012: Time to stand together against 'fortress mentality'

This image has been used on posters for this year's World Refugee Day. (Photo: UNHCR)

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Every 60 seconds, eight people in this world become forcibly displaced from their homes to escape conflict, persecution or natural disaster. Right now, there are about 43 million people in this predicament worldwide.

In 2001, the United Nations proclaimed June 20 as World Refugee Day, in honour of the 50th anniversary of the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees. Since then, World Refugee Day is celebrated annually through locally-organized events in over 100 countries, involving government officials, humanitarian aid workers, celebrities, civilians and the forcibly displaced themselves.

Its purpose is to raise awareness, recognize the experiences and applaud the contributions of forcibly displaced people throughout the world. 

Most of us born in Canada have, thankfully, never experienced what it's like to live in a conflict zone. We've never experienced torture, arbitrary imprisonment or rape because of our ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, social group or politics. We've never had to give up our friends, family, possessions and everything we've ever known to escape with our lives and start over somewhere else.

But more than 16 million people in this world have.

On June 20, the UN Refugee Agency is asking us to put ourselves in their shoes. "What would you do?" they ask in a new smart phone app and online questionnaire, providing some common scenarios faced by people fleeing conflict. There is no right answer to be found in the multiple choice options on screen. Some of the options lead to unforeseen disastrous consequences.

Refuge and safety can be elusive. There are no clear paths or choices for the world's refugees. Those paths are made even more obscure by relatively safe, rich countries in the Global North pushing the boundaries of the UN Convention and Protocols on Refugees by attempting to restrict the entry of those in need of asylum.

Currently, 80 per cent  of the world's refugees are found in the developing world. Only 20 per cent of refugees end up being resettled or making asylum claims in the richest countries of the Global North.

In his recent report, 'The State of the World's Refugees,' UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, states: "The space for humanitarian intervention is shrinking exactly when the need for humanitarian help is increasing. Pressures on the international protection system are clearly growing. In some industrialized countries in particular we see fortress mentalities that serve only to shift responsibility and compassion elsewhere."

The European Union chapter of Amnesty International recently created a powerful short video to question the attitudes of Western European nations to refugees.

Canada is the perfect example of this emerging "fortress mentality." Once lauded for our progressive and fair system of refugee protection and resettlement, our policies are now shifting gears.

The House of Commons has passed Bill C-31, the so-called "Protecting Canada's Immigration System" Act, which will create subclasses of asylum seekers and throw many of them into Canada's jails for up to a year with minimal opportunities for review.  (For more details, see Karl Nerenberg's article here.) 

The government has also severely reduced the number of refugees that can be sponsored privately, even though the costs of resettlement are borne entirely by the sponsoring group.

And with very little notice, they have announced a July 1 cut to the Interim Federal Health Benefits program for refugees - leaving some of the most vulnerable people in Canada with no health insurance.

The message of these policies and the rhetoric used to justify them is clear: refugees are fraudsters, terrorists and freeloaders and our government does not want them here. International obligations and UN Conventions be damned.

World Refugee Day events on June 20 provide an opportunity for us to come together to refute that message and demonstrate that refugees are welcome and valued here in our communities.

No one chooses to become a refugee. But we can choose to support and include them here in Canada.

Check this listing or contact your local refugee services organization to find out about a World Refugee Day event in your area.

Melissa McDowell is on the organizing committee for World Refugee Day Vancouver: a free, family-friendly celebration that uses art, theatre, music, interactive information booths, video games and more to explore refugee experiences, issues and policies. World Refugee Day Vancouver 2012 takes place at the Central Branch of the Vancouver Public Library on June 20th from 11:00am to 4:00pm. 


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