By Meg Carter, ChildFund Sponsorship Communication Specialist
What would you take if you were forced to flee your home?
Imagine you’re one of 44 million refugees around the world. With little or no warning, you must leave your home under threat of persecution, conflict or violence. Look around. Everywhere, people are running from all that’s familiar: Nearly one in two refugees is a child; two in five are women. In a single moment, people can lose everything.
In the chaos of war and conflict, children often end up unaccompanied, alone or left behind to experience events no child should ever see — all without the protection of family or the routine of school. Life in exile averages 17 years, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). If you had time to find only one thing to carry with you, what would it be?
Today, on World Refugee Day, we ask you to walk in solidarity beside those children who are still in transit.
Resettlement, Integration, Return
Consider Liberia. Last year the UNHCR completed repatriation of more than 155,000 Liberians scattered throughout West Africa — 23 years after the start of the civil war. ChildFund works in Liberia and also in The Gambia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, where Liberian refugees found shelter while the conflict in their country raged from 1989 to 2003.
Even when violence ends and peace and stability are restored, returning home may not be easy. In 2011, when I was teaching at Guinea’s national polytechnic university several of my young colleagues were Liberian refugees. They no longer spoke English — their native country’s official language — having received their entire education in Guinea’s French-speaking schools.
As the U.N. resettled and integrated the final 724 Liberians who had lived in Guinea, uprisings in neighboring Mali spiraled out of control. Displaced Malians scurried to safety in Senegal and Guinea — the same sanctuaries coveted by those escaping Côte d’Ivoire’s (Ivory Coast) election violence in 2011, as well as those fleeing the 2012 military coup in Guinea-Bissau.
Joining Mali on the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) list of current hot spots are Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Where do refugees from these conflicts first seek asylum? They cross the borders into ChildFund countries Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.
During 2007, I worked in Busia, a border town split between Uganda and Kenya. Refugees — mainly Somalis, Sudanese and Congolese — comprised 20 percent of Busia’s population on the Uganda side. By the end of that year, election violence in Kenya drove hundreds of thousands across the border at Busia, creating a humanitarian crisis in Uganda. A bitter irony of conflict and disaster in the developing world is that neighboring countries are the least equipped to support an influx of refugees.
The IRC, which resettles more refugees and asylum seekers outside their native lands than any other organization worldwide, maintains a permanent watch list of four countries. Of these, ChildFund works in three: Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines. The IRC considers Sri Lanka vulnerable because of prolonged ethnic conflicts, while Indonesia and the Philippines experience nearly constant and unprecedented natural disasters.
ChildFund believes that a single family torn apart by war or natural disaster is one too many. We invest in disaster preparedness training in the countries we serve. Please take a minute to help us reduce the number of child refugees through a contribution to our emergency fund, ChildAlert.
Before joining ChildFund in 2012, Meg served in the Peace Corps’ health and education programs in Senegal, Uganda and Guinea. Between posts, she designed short-term projects for children and youth in Thailand and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. And stateside, she tutored two young girls whose family sought political asylum here from Iraq.