Asia Pacific: World Refugee Day reminds us that refugees are friends, not strangers

13 June 2011

Fr Paul Pollock SJ, celebrates Mass in Bangkok's Immigration Detention Centre. While these asylum seekers and refugees were fleeing conflict in their home country, they were arrested in Thailand for living here illegally. They will live in detention until the United Nations refugee agency resettles them, or they decide to return to their homeland.

Bangkok, 13 June, 2011 – Every day around the region and world, people are going to bed at night with their family, in their home only to wake up the next day to find their home destroyed by a natural disaster, unsafe due to violent conflict, or threatened because of their race, or gender or political opinions. Instantly, they change from people raising a family to people fleeing their homes for safety, sometimes a few kilometres away and sometimes a few thousand kilometres in another country.

These people, whether they know it or not, are refugees. This year, on World Refugee Day, we at JRS recognise the need to welcome and treat these people as neighbours and friends and work to understand their predicament. Many fled with their families, including small children, not knowing how they can provide for them. Others, including many women and children, escaped violence or torture in their home countries, leaving them traumatised. It is the compassion of people in the receiving countries that allows refugees to live safely. But our compassion and hospitality should be expressed in concrete acts of kindness by ensuring real protection in legislation so that refugees and displaced people are treated and live with dignity. We need to change our minds and hearts in order to transform the fear we have of strangers into creating places of hospitality and kindness.

World Refugee Day, coinciding with the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Refugee Convention, highlights how refugees can be treated with dignity and humanity. The Convention outlines the rights of refugees and the responsibilities of people hosting them. The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) urge Asia Pacific governments to sign the Convention and implement procedures that ensure the protection of refugees, providing them with explicit rights. Developing countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia hosts tens of thousands of refugees at any given time (more than many developed countries) and these refugees deserve rights and protection.

While these countries have a history of welcoming refugees and displaced people, signing and implementing its practical procedures will ensure that refugees be treated with respect rather than treated as illegal migrants and forced into hiding or arrested and detained. Furthermore, we also urge countries that have signed the Convention to keep to its spirit and letter. Instead of shifting responsibilities we urge them to share responsibilities to ensure protection for refugees and displaced people.

Today is a special day because it is not only World Refugee Day, but it is also the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Refugee Convention. In 1951, 60 years ago this month, many countries ratified the Convention relating to refugees, offering these people certain rights, like the right not to be returned to their home country if it is not safe and the right to move to a new country that is safe. It also makes the countries that sign this convention, 144 in the world today including the Philippines and Cambodia, responsible for treating refugees with dignity and respect.

Now more than ever it is important to understand who refugees are and why they have fled their homeland to a new country. Many live in refugee camps along the borders. But an increasing number of people from countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and African nations are living in urban areas and receive little assistance, and are therefore most vulnerable. They too who fled conflict are looking to have a safe life with their families when they can go back to their homes or start a new life somewhere else. They too have the same dreams and hopes for their family like we do.

Please join us on this World Refugee Day in celebrating our unique differences and appreciating the refugees living amongst us. Urge your government to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention (and 1967 Protocol) and implement concrete actions to allow refugees to live with dignity and humanity through the protection of their rights.

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