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29 June 2017
The Refugee Crisis: Dispelling Myths and Misconceptions
By Jose Muela, UNA-NCA Program Assistant and Patrick Realiza, Chair, UNA-NCA Sustainable Development Committee

Contributors: Anick Chaipraditkul and Kenneth Lemberg, Members, UNA-NCA Sustainable Development Committee

On Wednesday, June 21, 2017 the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA) Sustainable Development Committee hosted a panel discussion entitled, “The Refugee Crisis: Dispelling Myths and Misconceptions” at the United Nations Foundation in Washington, DC. The event focused on Global Goal #16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions. Patrick Realiza, Chair of the Sustainable Development Committee, served as the moderator for the panel of four.

The panel reflected the diversity of the Refugee Crisis. Each of them approaching the issue from a different background, they provided unique and complementing lenses through which to view the crisis. They discussed the backgrounds, experiences and personal perspectives of refugees and other displaced persons, as well as of those working in the field to resolve the crisis. As noted by Mr. Realiza, “With peaceful inclusive societies and common interest, people across the globe can help bring justice and safety to all those affected and displaced by the refugee crisis.”

Native to the North region of Darfur in Sudan; Niemat Ahmadi, current President of the Darfur Women Action Group, shared some of her past experiences as a refugee, including the compelling story of her journey  to the United States. She highlighted the ongoing refugee crisis in Darfur, especially the overwhelming lack of intervention from outside entities- proof that Global Goal #16 has yet to be witnessed in her home country. She discussed the importance of understanding just how many people are considered refugees and that, in most cases, it is an involuntary status- one in which people are forced into in order to survive.

Faith Akovi Cooper, a Regional Advisor for the West Africa Disaster Preparedness Initiative (WADPI) at the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Centre in Accra, Ghana, was born in Liberia. She entered the United States in 1993 as a refugee. In her remarks she noted the importance of disaster management and how it could be effectively be used across the globe to resolve world issues such as the refugee crisis. She noted that roughly 42,500 people are displaced each day and that this has led to the present day number of over 65 million displaced persons worldwide, with approximately 22 million of them as refugees. Ms. Cooper further described the need to address and find solutions to the current crisis as noting that this among her passions and that recent conflict such as the Syrian civil war have only worsen the crisis by adding nearly 13.9 million new refugees in 2016 alone. In addition, acknowledged the progress already made by governments and institutions who have worked to help find solutions, as seen with the significant the decrease in war on the continent of Africa. However, the number of refugees continues to grow due to the continued and increasing impact of climate change which is also heavily connected to issues concerning food security, deforestation and ocean erosion. Ms. Cooper stressed the importance of advocacy and local participation by citizens by holding their respective government leaders accountable. She highlighted that refugees do in fact positively contribute to their respective host countries’ economies because of their common desire to work hard and survive from their circumstances.

Daniel Sullivan, Senior Advocate for Human Rights at Refugees International (RI), provided a snapshot of the work through Refugees International, an independent global advocacy organization dedicated to providing better support for displaced and stateless persons around the globe. He shared his recent experiences in Myanmar (Burma) and the continued challenges faced by the Rohingya people, a Muslim based population primarily from the Rakhine State (Arakan). He noted that as many as 500,000 Rohingya refugees currently reside in nearby Bangladesh which was a consequence of decades of persecution led by the Myanmar government. Since October 2016 alone, as many as 74,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh. Mr. Sullivan noted Rohingya continue to face dangers which are tied to government actions and climate change. In addition, he cited that Cyclone Mora recently damaged or destroyed as much as 80% of the Rohingya makeshift settlements. Mr. Sullivan noted that climate related displacement continues to deepen the refugee crisis with as many as 24 million people being displaced directly by it in 2016. However, he explained that progress has indeed been made and cited the work of former U.S. President Obama in calling for a summit on refugees and the work of the United Nations to create of a global compact addressing migration and refugees. Today, many of these programs and initiatives designed at resolving the refugee crisis face the potential for paramount cutbacks, noting the potential withdrawal of funding and participation by the United States. Although better aid would be helpful to resolving this crisis, Mr. Sullivan stressed the importance of finding durable and lasting solutions.

Larry Yungk, Senior Resettlement Officer for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for the United States and the Caribbean, stressed assistance to refugees and resettlement as a great stabilizing investment, as it works against radicalization. Instead, refugees face impossible obstacles to reaching safety, a significant waste of human capital and talent that has consequently had a lasting negative impact on not only those individuals, but on societies as a whole. He defined refugees and other displaced persons as “those seeking to flee their respective countries due to a well-founded fear of persecution,” citing that the true number of displaced persons is even larger than what is reported, primarily because they are “not recognized”- a problem in and of itself.

Mr. Yungk closed by highlighting the importance of discussing and demystifying the myths and misconceptions that we hold about the refugee crisis. He explained the incredible worth of hearing first-account stories and challenges faced by refugees, like those of Ms. Ahmadi and Ms. Cooper.

Mr. Realiza concluded the event by highlighting the salience of the discussion and indicated that there is still much to do done. He thanked and recognized the key contributions of his fellow committee members as well as participating partners - the United Nations Foundation, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Nexus Media News and the Forum on International Affairs (FIA) for their continued involvement and support on the planning and execution of this successful event.


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