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By Mariam Azimi
Uploaded on May 26, 2016
Nearly 60 million people are displaced from their homes around the world due to war, disease, natural disaster, poverty, persecution and terrorism. The refugee crisis has not reached such devastating heights since World War II.
In response, Refugees International (RI), an independent advocacy organization, has worked to raise awareness of, and assistance for, refugees from South Sudan to Syria to El Salvador.
RI President Michel Gabaudan says, “The need to speak out in defense of the displaced and find solutions to their plight has become more important than ever.”
Over half of the world’s refugees come from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. RI was recognized as the first NGO to raise the alarm about a lack of programs to address and prevent gender-based violence among displaced Syrians. It also pushed for greater help for Syrian refugees living outside of formal camps.
While Syria has commanded the attention of aid workers, RI has also tried to highlight lesser-known refugee crises around the world. In 2013, for example, it learned that the United Nations was not assisting at least 200,000 displaced Congolese because they lived in so-called “spontaneous sites,” rather than official camps. Following RI’s request, the U.N. revamped its approach to camp management and pledged to assist all Congolese IDPs on the basis of need. The group has also lobbied the U.S. government to support people who have been forced to flee their homes as a result of climate-related disasters.
RI celebrated individuals who have helped shed light on the growing number of global refugees at its 37th annual Anniversary Dinner, held April 26 at Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium.
Sir Richard Branson, the British billionaire founder of the Virgin Group, was honored with RI’s highest humanitarian award, the McCall-Pierpaoli Award. The Congressional Leadership Award was presented to Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and the Richard C. Holbrooke Award went to Ukrainian civil society leader Olena Honcharova.
“How we deal with this crisis and the social upheaval created in both the East and West will define our generation,” Branson told the 500 guests gathered for the event.
“Refugee crises don’t just appear out of nowhere; they are the symptoms of greater social ills and challenges — from climate change to global terrorism and poor governance.”
In the early 1990s, Branson worked with Queen Noor and the late King Hussein of Jordan to provide aid and care for tens of thousands of refugees streaming in from Iraq to Jordan during the Gulf War.
“Twenty-five years later, it feels as if there hasn’t been a year when the world wasn’t faced with a refugee crisis — be it in Burundi, Bosnia or Somalia, in Kosovo, Afghanistan or Darfur, or now in Syria,” he lamented.
Branson said that in addition to increased levels of aid, the international community needs to ensure that displacement does not become normalized.
“When refugees become a commonplace occurrence, the greatest danger is indifference,” he warned. “Just last week, at least 400 refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea were reported to have drowned in the Mediterranean when the boat ferrying them from Egypt to Italy capsized.”
He pointedly added: “What does it say about us when this immense tragedy at Europe’s borders isn’t even breaking news any more?”
Record numbers of displaced people not only need physical support in the form of water, food and shelter, but emotional and psychological support as well, speakers at the RI dinner stressed.
Refugees need to be integrated into neighboring countries by being allowed to work and restart their lives. They need to be welcomed, not ostracized or demonized.
Aid groups warn that when these destitute communities are marginalized from society, particularly the youth, that is precisely when they may turn to violence, radicalism and possibly terrorism.
Suspicions about immigrants and Syrian refugees have run rampant in this year’s U.S. presidential contest, with Republican frontrunner Donald Trump railing against Mexicans and Muslims alike.
“How we treat refugees is a crucial test of how open and progressive our societies are,” Branson pointed out. “This is not just a humanitarian crisis; it is also a moral one.”
Sen. Cardin, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, echoed that sentiment. “Every person deserves the right to live with passion and dignity.”
Other notable donors and RI board members at the event included French Ambassador Gérard Araud, actors Matt Dillon and Sam Waterston, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and chef Fabio Trabocchi.
While Syria and the European migrant crisis have dominated the news, Ukrainian civil rights activist and honoree Olena Honcharova reminded the audience that other parts of the world continue to struggle as well.
Honcharova discussed a litany of pressing issues that displaced populations are forced to contend with, including diseases such as Hepatitis, HIV and tuberculosis, economic issues such as unemployment, as well as the sexual and physical abuse of women and children.
Despite a fragile ceasefire between the government in Kiev and Russia-backed rebels in the east of the country, Honcharova said fighting continues to ravage Ukraine. “Many communities in the ‘gray zone’ every night are exposed to shelling, including heavy, large-caliber artillery, as well as cluster bombs.”
She added: “Civilians are being killed and there is a high level of looting and sexual violence, including against children.”
Although great efforts have been made to end the violence, Honcharova urged audience members to “not forget Ukraine and its people in need.”
Mariam Azimi is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.