Mojtaba might seem like an ordinary 22 year old student. He is studying molecular biology at the Medical University of Vienna and dreams of finding a cure for cancer. Yet 10 years ago, when he was just 13 years old, he and his older brother, Morteza, were forced to leave their family and home behind in Afghanistan to escape the Taliban. During their terrifying journey to safety, Morteza tragically drowned in the Aegean Sea, leaving Mojtaba alone.
Once Mojtaba reached Europe, he had the support of a family in Austria and was eventually able to thrive. In many ways he is an ordinary young man — sharing the same hopes and dreams for the future — although his motivations are clear. “I have seen things that people twice my age have not seen,” he says. “This makes me strict with myself to use my opportunities and make my family proud.”
Mojtaba’s is just one story. There are now 65.3 million people forcibly displaced in the world, one in every 113 people on earth, and more than at any time since the Second World War. A third have been forced to flee across borders to seek sanctuary, while more than 40 million people are displaced within their own countries, torn from their homes and often facing great danger. And half of all refugees are children, often alone and vulnerable.
This forced displacement has been on the rise since at least the mid-1990s in most regions, but over the past five years the rate of climb has increased. The reasons are threefold: situations that cause large refugee outflows are lasting longer (for example, conflicts in Somalia or Afghanistan are now into their third and fourth decades respectively); dramatic new or reignited situations are occurring frequently (today’s largest being Syria); and the rate at which solutions are being found for refugees and internally displaced people has been on a falling trend since the end of the Cold War. As recently as 10 years ago, six people were being displaced every minute. Today that number is 24.
At sea, 10,000 people have died on the Mediterranean alone since the start of 2014. On land, we have witnessed deaths, fences being erected, and tear-gassing at borders. Against this backdrop of immense human suffering, humanitarian funding is in crisis and organizations like the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its partners, have been pushed to the limit. Never has there been a greater need for compassion and solidarity with people who have lost everything than today.
As a result, UNHCR has launched a major campaign that asks the world to stand together #WithRefugees. The campaign aims to demonstrate public support for families forced to flee through a global petition, to influence and mobilize states in support of a global compact for refugees. It will be delivered in advance of a historic UN high-level plenary of the General Assembly on addressing large movements of refugees and migrants in New York in September 2016. Specifically, the petition asks all governments to make sure that every refugee child has an education, every refugee family has somewhere safe to live, and every refugee can work or learn skills to make a positive contribution to their community.
Conflict is one of the most powerful determinants of whether a child is out of school. Half of the world’s out-of-school children are in conflict zones. That is a staggering 29 million young minds out of the classroom. The tragic irony is that those countries whose children are out of school are the very ones that are in the greatest need of educated citizens to help them rebuild.
Nine year old Solaf is a Syrian refugee living with her parents and older brother in Azraq refugee camp in Jordan. Originally from southern Syria, she and her family fled to Jordan in 2013 after their home was partially destroyed in a missile strike. Solaf has vivid memories of the conflict in Syria. But despite everything she has been through, Solaf is a lively child and an example of the positive potential in young refugees that should be nurtured. “I want to go to America. One of my relatives went once and told me there is normal life there – big supermarkets and good schools. I would do my exams and get good grades there. I want to become a doctor and treat diabetes. Why? Because my mother has diabetes. I want to help my family because they are all I have,” she says.
When refugees are without access to training or jobs, they are naturally reliant on aid, unable to work to provide for their own families and contribute meaningfully to host countries. After fleeing war or persecution, the opportunity to work and earn a living is one of the most effective ways people can rebuild their lives in dignity and peace.
Jamal Naji, 37, has muscular dystrophy. He cannot walk and relies on a wheelchair to get around. He fled his home of Falluja, Iraq, when extremists took control of the city two years ago. His home and store were destroyed. His father was killed by an extremist and one of his brothers was injured.
Jamal runs a small store from his shelter at Al Khadra camp in Baghdad. “We are a family of 11 people and I’m earning a living for the family through this shop, selling snacks and sweets. It’s been eight months now since I opened the shop. The lesson I learned from life is not to depend on others but to support my family myself, without anybody’s help,” he says.
Securing protection and long-term opportunities for refugees can only be achieved through international solidarity and shared global responsibility; countries working together to find fair, lasting solutions.
The High Commissioner, Filippo Grandi, has spoken about why UNHCR is making such a public call to support refugees. “We are in a period of deepening conflict and turmoil in the world, which is causing many more people to flee their homes than before,” he says. “It affects and involves us all, and what it needs is understanding, compassion and the political will to come together and find real answers for the refugee plight. This has become a defining challenge of our times.”