World Refugee Day 2015
World Refugee Day is held on June 20 each year. It is an occasion to think about, and recognize, the plight and the resilience of forcibly displaced people around the world. In 2015, the situation for displaced persons, refugees and asylum seekers remains cause for great concern.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), established in 1950, is the principal international agency helping refugees, displaced persons, asylum seekers and stateless people.
According to the UNHCR’s most recent Year Book (2013), there are about 43 million people of concern to the agency. The largest group consists of 24 million ‘internally displaced persons’ who are protected and cared for by the UNHCR. Civil war is the chief source of such displacement. In Syria, 40% of the population is displaced – that’s 7.6 million people.
When civil wars are successfully resolved in favour of democracy, displaced persons are usually able to return to their cities, towns and villages. This is an important factor: not all of the millions who are put under the umbrella of being ‘persons of concern’ to the UNHCR are without hope. Many Australians do not realize that the great majority do not require resettlement in a third country. Voluntary repatriation, when conditions allow for it, and local integration into the host society, are the common solutions.
According to the UNHCR, there are 11.7 million refugees, plus 3.5 million stateless people, and 1.2 million asylum seekers in the world.
Each term has a precise meaning.
A refugee is basically a person who ‘owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country’.
Stateless people are those without official nationality, usually because of discrimination or the political revision of borders.
An asylum seeker is someone claiming the right to protection under the UN’s Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol, but who has not as yet been accepted as a refugee via the particular country’s determination process.
Asylum seekers have a right to claim protection in any of the 142 countries that have signed the 1951 UN Convention and 1967 Protocol. But national governments can nullify this right, as happened in Australia in July 2013 when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that no asylum seeker who arrives by boat without authorisation would be resettled in Australia – even if they were genuine refugees.
Each year, the UNHCR seeks to resettle in a third country about one-percent of the refugees: approximately a million people. Resettlement is sought as the only safe and viable durable solution for those living in perilous situations or who have specific needs that cannot be addressed in the country where they have sought protection. Sadly, the great majority are not resettled. Last year, two dozen countries with resettlement programs took in 140,000. The United States, Canada and Australia account for the majority of those resettled.
Australian governments since 1977 have maintained a planned comprehensive humanitarian program for refugees alongside the larger migration program. The program was established during the government of Malcolm Fraser, with the late Michael Mackellar as Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs (1975-79).
In late August 2015, the Museum’s permanent children’s exhibition space PLAY UP will be introducing the Right to Shelter, a hands-on, immersive exploration of what shelter means to children around the world. As a part of this exhibition, visitors will be encouraged to see the world through the eyes of Syrian refugee children in a series of photos and short films exploring notions of belonging and displacement.
Australia takes in 13,700 refugees per year under the humanitarian program. Prior to the late 1970s, there was no dedicated program: refugee intake was an ad hoc response to particular situations.
Over the 70 years since the end of World War Two, Australia has given a safe home to more than 800,000 refugees. About one in ten of all the permanent newcomers since 1945 have been displaced persons and refugees.
On World Refugee Day, this is something to reflect upon with some satisfaction while also continuing to consider and debate whether we could and should be doing more in what is a difficult situation globally.
The Hon. Michael Mackellar died on 9 May this year. The Museum extends its sympathy to the Mackellar family.
Below are three excerpts from an oral history interview recorded by Barry York between 2008 and 2010 for the Museum with Michael Mackellar.
Setting the “benchmark” on refugees and the arrival of the first unauthorised boat in 1976:
Doing “the right thing” rather than following public opinion polls: an assessment of the Howard policy on refugees:
How a Minister found inspiration in a photo of a Vietnamese refugee boy: