By Caitlin Van Orden
Manager of Foundation and Corporate Relations, USA for UNHCR
According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is someone who has been forced to flee his or her country because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group; a refugee either cannot return home or is afraid to do so. War and ethnic, tribal and religious violence are leading causes of refugees fleeing their countries.
The concept of having to flee one’s home in order to survive or maintain one’s freedom is nothing new. Granting asylum to people fleeing persecution in foreign lands has been the hallmark of civilizations for thousands of years. References can be found in ancient texts from 3,500 years ago from ancient Babylonia to ancient Egypt. Whereas conflict and war is usually measured in the numbers of people killed, one of the less talked about by-products are the many more who escape death only to find themselves in a foreign land without resources, struggling to rebuild their lives or waiting until the day when they can return home.
The UN Refugee Agency was established by the UN Security Council in 1950 precisely with the purpose of protecting such populations. In the 60 years since the Agency was established, its dedicated staff have helped more than 50 million people restart their lives, earning two Nobel Peace Prizes in the process.
The world is growing increasingly interconnected, and migration flows are becoming more complex. Movements of refugees are more often intermingled with economic migrants, who, unlike refugees, choose to leave their home country in the search of a better life. For this reason, it is all the more important for there to be an understanding of refugees and their unique rights and needs. The UN Refugee Agency remains vigilant in its work ensuring all refugees have access to the rights afforded to them by the international community.
Importance to the Civil Society Sector
Refugees are people just like you. Except, through no fault of their own, they have had their homes, communities, families and neighbors ripped away from them. They often must travel long distances on foot, carrying what little they can, until they can reach safety. Once they reach a new country their journey is far from over. Frequently, they have no friends or family to turn to, and they often do not even have an identity card to prove who they are.
Without the help and support of nonprofits, benevolent governments, and caring individuals, there would be millions of people without a home and without hope. Entire generations of children might grow up without access to an education or the opportunity to support themselves and their families in the future. This is a completely unsustainable situation that can easily lead to more poverty, violence and displacement.
Organizations, such as the UN Refugee Agency and its implementing partners, work around the clock to ensure that refugees are not left behind. Together these organizations provide refugees with protection, shelter, food, water, medical care, education, and the chance to restart their lives.
Important People Related to the Topic
Albert Einstein: We have all heard of Albert Einstein and his scientific theories. Yet few of us know of his days as a refugee, when his books were thrown into Hitler's bonfires, and as a German Jew, Einstein was accused of treason.
Einstein grew up in Munich, Germany and studied in Switzerland. He published three papers the formed the basis of the theory of relativity. He later returned to Germany and in 1921, he received the Nobel Prize for his work.
However, the rise of the Nazi party and anti-Semitism made it increasingly difficult for him to work, and in 1932 he took up the offer of a post at Princeton. He became a citizen of the United States, but retained Swiss citizenship.
Einstein and his wife worked tirelessly on behalf of German Jews, making visa applications and vouching personally for many refugees. He expressed mixed feelings about his life in exile. "I am privileged by fate to live here in Princeton," he wrote to the Belgian Queen, who had befriended him in the early days. "In this small university town the chaotic voices of human strife barely penetrate. I am almost ashamed to be living in such peace while all the rest struggle and suffer."
In 1944, Einstein supported the war effort by putting up for auction his 1905 paper on special relativity. It fetched $6 million, and the manuscript is now in the Library of Congress. His final letter was to philosopher and pacifist Bertrand Russell, lending his support to the movement to ban nuclear weapons. Einstein died on April 18, 1955. (source: UNHCR webpage: http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/search?page=search&query=einstein).
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: Albright was the first female Secretary of State and the highest-ranking woman in the history of the US Government. She was born in the Czech Republic and twice her family was forced to flee their homes. First, during World War II and the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia the family fled to England. They later returned to Prague, and Albright’s father, a diplomat, took a position with government in the brief period between liberation from the Nazis and the Communist coup in 1948. As a result of the Communist takeover, the family again had to flee.
They migrated to the United States in 1948; Albright was 11 years old. They settled in Denver, Colorado, and while attending high school there, Albright won an UN-sponsored prize for correctly naming all of the organization’s member states.
Albright went on to study at Wellesley College and then moved into a career in politics, advising Michael Dukakis’ presidential campaign and working as President Bill Clinton’s permanent advisor to the United Nations. In 1996, Clinton nominated Albright Secretary of State; she was unanimously confirmed by the Senate and became the first woman to ever hold the post.
In 1998, Albright celebrated her 50 years in the United States by speaking at a nationalization ceremony for some 100 new American citizens. Noting her own history as a refugee she said, “Today marks a new beginning in your lives. And an ongoing chapter in the story of America, which is, above all else, a story of immigrants.”
Related Nonprofit Organizations/Websites
- USA for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency www.UNrefugees.org
- The Blue Key Campaign www.thebluekey.org
- United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees www.UNHCR.org
Bibliography and Internet Sources
- UNHCR www.UNHCR.org
- USA for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency www.Unrefugees.org
- Einstein: http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/search?page=search&query=einstein
- Albright: http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c74.html
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