Celebrating 2021 World Refugee Day

Celebrating 2021 World Refugee Day

By Luis Eduardo Perez Murcia

On June 20th 2001 the world celebrated for the very first time World Refugee Day. Since then, countless institutions and organisations have been organising events to honour refugees and remind the world that their lives must matter for all of us.

But what does it mean to celebrate World Refugee Day? Why is this so significant?

Celebrating World Refugee Day is an opportunity to acknowledge the struggle of over 72 million people who are currently living in refugee situations all over the world and to call for governments, international organisations and all members of the society to join their voices and claim for their rights. Today and every day we must stand for the social, political, cultural and economic rights of refugees and reject any form of discrimination and exclusion. No matter where refugees come from, if they move within or across national borders, their nationality, ethnicity, religion, faith, gender or gender identity or political thoughts, we all must remember that they are human beings who deserve our respect, empathy and solidarity.

Celebrating World Refugee Day is also a way to recognise the talents and contributions displaced people and refugees have always made, are making and will make to our societies if we, as a global society, embrace them as part of our communities and support them in developing their potential. People fleeing war are men and women, children, teenagers, youth adults and elderly people with the skills and knowledge we all need to succeed in our lives. The ongoing pandemic has shown once more the refugees’ willingness to support the communities they settle. As UNHCR (2021)[1] reported, refugees have been working on the ‘frontline of the fight against Covid-19’. They are health workers, educators and volunteers doing what they can to support their communities. A 75 years old man pedalling a bicycle in Kakuma camp in Kenya, urging people to wash their hands, a Venezuelan female doctor who is part of an ambulance crew in Peru, and a group of Syrians shopping for those unable to do so during lockdowns in Switzerland, are only three of millions of examples.

Celebrating World Refugee Day is also an opportunity to highlight the importance of the right to education to transform people’s lives. Education is a universal right and we all have the shared responsibility to raise our voices to stand for the right to education for all refugees. However, this is also a day to acknowledge that refugees are already left behind by education systems and that governments and policymakers should deliver comprehensive education policies to remediate such an injustice. The levels of enrolment of children and youth with refugee background are significantly lower when compared with no refugee populations and less than 1% of refugees access to higher education[2].

As Professor Amra Sabic-El-Rayess states, based on her own experience of war and survival, education has the power to give people a new life[3]. To unveil the power of education to transform refugees’ lives, however, we all need much more than empty words. We need action and financial resources to make education available, accessible, acceptable and adaptable to the needs of refugee populations. Whether in refugee camps or informal settlements, education policies should include specific strategies to guarantee the right of people to learn in their mother tongue, to provide psychological support to those who fled violence and witnessed the murder of relatives or who have themselves experiences serious human rights abuses.

Perhaps the day to celebrate refugee day is every day, at least until the conditions for them to effectively enjoy their rights are given.

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[1] UNHCR (2021). Journeys. The newsletter is exclusively for the UK for UNHCR supporters. Spring 2021.

[2] Data based on the 19.9 million refugees under UNHCR protection reveal that only 61% of refugee children attend primary school; only 23% are enrolled in secondary school and 1% in higher education (UNHCR, 2017). See also UNESCO (2018). Global Education Monitoring Report. Migration, displacement and education: Building bridges not walls.

[3] Sabic-El-Rayess, Amra., and Sullivan, Laura. 2020. The Cat I Never Named: A True Story of Love, War, and Survival. Bloomsbury, USA.