The Struggles of Being a Refugee
Writer: Harry Zhao
Editor: Adelyne Koe
Graphic Designer: Hannah Bugeja
What are Refugees?
Refugees are people escaping conflict, persecution and/or oppression by fleeing to a different place. Currently, about 26 million people in the world are considered to be refugees by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). Many live in foreign countries, regions or refugee camps, but there are also those (internally displaced refugees) who have not moved to another country yet and are still seeking refuge in the regions in which they are being persecuted. Examples of such refugees are asylum-seekers, who have not yet been granted international protection or been offered asylum in other places. These groups of people are severely affected by alienation, limited access to resources, and the constant threat of danger and persecution. A majority of refugee groups come from the Middle East or Africa, where years of conflicts make life there unsafe for certain groups of people, forcing them to flee; e.g. the Somalis, Yemenis, Syrians, South Sudanese and many more. They require international humanitarian aid in order to live peacefully and sustain themselves, whilst still maintaining the hope of being able to return to their home countries in a state of peace and stability.
Yemen has been torn asunder by civil war for over six years. Most of the country is headed towards large-scale famine, with over 4 million internally displaced people and 137 000 refugees from other countries residing in Yemen, such as the Somalis. The magnitude of displaced and impoverished people combined with insufficient food supplies and healthcare leaves two-thirds of the country dependent on humanitarian aid. Many families are deprived of the necessities of life, and many lives have already been lost to violence, illnesses and starvation. In April of 2020, thousands of Ethiopian refugees in Yemen were forcibly expelled by militant forces over the Saudi border. Many were shot by Saudi forces as they were fleeing, others seeking shelter in mountainous regions. Later, satellite images show around 300 refugee tents and houses destroyed in the region of Al-Ghar. There is also significant violence towards women, scholars, journalists and religious minorities.
© MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images
The Rohingya people are a group containing mostly Muslims who resided in the Rakhine State of Myanmar. Under the 1982 Myanmar nationality law, they were denied citizenship as well as freedom of movement and state education. The Myanmar government has considered them to be "Bangali" and refused to acknowledge them as Rohingya. In 2017, a major displacement crisis resulting from Burmese "clearance operations" on the Rohingyas led to the mass displacement of around 625 000 Rohingya refugees into neighboring Bangladesh. Even more were refugees forced to flee into other nations. Around 100 000 Rohingyas are still detained in internally displaced camps in Myanmar. Over the course of several military crackdowns in the 21st century, the Myanmar government has displaced or brutalised many Rohingyas, and burnt down several villages. The persecution of Rohingyas has been called "ethnic cleansing" and "genocide" by many human rights researchers, although the Myanmar government denies this and states that it was only reacting to rebel attacks.
The Bangladesh government was overwhelmed by the incoming refugees and placed them in restricted conditions. 20 000 of these Rohingya refugees were relocated to the remote island Bhasan Char, where there is a lack of adequate sanitation or stable infrastructure. The oncoming monsoon season may endanger their livelihoods as there are little preventive measures against flooding and tidal surges. The living conditions are deficient, as refugees face abuse from authorities, food shortages and a lack of medical care.
Rohingya refugees being relocated to Bhashan Char
Challenges of Being a Refugee
Being displaced and facing the threat of persecution, refugees often live in dire circumstances. With limited resources at hand, they rely heavily on external aid. Furthermore, living as refugees may have dangerous effects on their mental health and well-being. Refugees carry with them pre-migration trauma from conflict, persecution and the loss of homes and loved ones, which can render them very vulnerable to mental illnesses. The post-migrational challenges of living far from home, learning a new language, adapting to a new culture that might not even welcome them, and securing income and housing can take additional tolls on the mental well-being of refugees. The accumulation of pre- and post-migration stress and trauma may correlate to higher rates of PTSD, depression and anxiety disorders in refugee groups compared to the local population. Research found that refugees are five times more likely to develop mental illnesses than the general population. As children grow, they may face developmental issues as they struggle to build their own identity, having been deeply affected by trauma. Pregnant refugees are often more vulnerable to anxiety and postnatal depression, as they worry about not being able to support themselves and their children.
There are numerous toxic narratives about refugees and other displaced people that aim to vilify and alienate them, especially in certain online communities. These discriminatory representations of refugees can lead to fearmongering and xenophobia. Some try to label refugees as "invasive foreigners" in order to perpetuate the sentiment that they are not welcome, or that they do not belong. Others may portray foreigners as a "threat" to the domestic culture, economy and society because of differences in race, religion or values. White supremacists feed into this fear of refugees by claiming that their culture and/or race "is being replaced" or that refugees are “stealing their jobs". 46% of people with anti-refugee sentiments erroneously link refugees to terrorists, even though statistics show that refugees are less likely to involve themselves in violence and terrorism because that is what made them leave their homes in the first place. Anti-refugee sentiments spread widely via social media, such as anti-Rohingya posts from ultra-nationalist Buddhist Facebook groups that stir up hatred and resentment towards Rohingya refugees.
The UNHCR and How to Help
There are various ways to support and assist refugees. An important step in this is providing donations and resources, mainly through organizations dedicated to helping them. A major organization is UNHCR, which sends humanitarian workers to aid refugees, deliver essential resources, and monitor the quality of life in displacement camps. Donations can help such organizations supply food, shelter, and psychological and legal assistance to refugees in need. It is also important to spread awareness about the situations in which refugees find themselves in, as well as to dispel resentment towards refugees by empowering their voices and sharing their stories.