Today is World Refugee Day, when we honour the resilience of people forced to flee their homes because of war, violence or persecution.
At the end of 2019 over one per cent of humanity, a staggering 79.5 million people, were displaced globally. It may seem that many refugees are arriving in Europe, but in fact most people who flee do not go to other continents but to neighbouring territories or remain displaced in their own countries, hoping to return home.
Malta has rescued and brought to its shores thousands of men, women and children following their desperate journey from Libya. Among them, many are in need of international protection who cannot be returned to their country because of a serious threat to life or freedom.
Behind the news headlines, there are human stories. When the UNHCR team meets newly-arrived asylum seekers, we hear harrowing accounts of hardship and survival.
We talk to people who have escaped war-torn countries, survivors of rape, forced marriages or torture, and unaccompanied children as young as 12 who were locked up in detention centres in Libya.
Their painful stories do not end when they leave home; their journey to safety is usually just as traumatic, and settling down in an unfamiliar place has its own challenges.
Today, we reflect on the reality of global displacement, but in 2020 World Refugee Day also arrives when we are all in a state of uncertainty due to the global pandemic and in the midst of social change.
COVID-19 has tested our strength, both as individuals and as communities. Throughout the public health emergency, UNHCR has collaborated closely with the local health authorities, whose dedication to ensuring every member of society can access information and healthcare has been admirable.
There were many hurdles to overcome, such as ensuring that people could be informed of new measures in a language they understand.
Together with our partner organisations, we support these efforts by producing and sharing translated materials. Over and above this, existing communication networks set up by refugee communities ensured
information could reach more of those living on the margins of society.
I commend refugees and asylum seekers who when faced by the pandemic, were cooperative in complying with health measures and proactive in assisting with the containment of the virus.
This was not an easy task for them, as the problematic living conditions of many refugees were amplified because of COVID-19. People in overcrowded reception centres found it very difficult to maintain physical distancing, while some refugees lost their jobs, facing a sudden lack of livelihood and no means of buying food or paying rent; the same reality affecting Maltese citizens.
It has been humbling to witness exemplary acts of kindness towards those in need, with charitable initiatives being launched and readily met by generous people, including refugees. The Sudanese and Syrian (among other) community organisations delivered food to Ħal Far Tent Village when residents were placed under mandatory quarantine as well as to households, while individual refugees working with local companies formed part of projects distributing needed items to Maltese and migrant families alike.
Refugees are active participants in our community, working on the frontline, including in healthcare.
This is partly thanks to Malta’s progress in driving social inclusion, particularly when it comes to employment. All asylum seekers no matter their status can work legally.
At the end of 2019 over one per cent of humanity, a staggering 79.5 million people, were displaced globally- Samar Mazloum
This enables interaction, increases opportunities for learning local languages and provides the opportunity to build a future.
While we are witnessing positive signs in local integration policies, there have also been troubling events this year, such as the closure of ports in the Mediterranean.
UNHCR has always maintained that, even during a public health crisis, states should continue their life-saving efforts in rescuing people in distress at sea.
It is thus with increasing urgency that we continue to advocate for timely rescue, and support calls for a disembarkation and relocation mechanism among EU member states.
Amid all this, UNHCR also grows more concerned about the prevalence of hate speech and discrimination. World Refugee Day is taking place against a backdrop of global protests to end racism.
Here in Malta, the allegedly racially motivated murder of Lassana Cisse is a painful memory.
UNHCR – which at its core strives for a world of equality for all people in dignity and rights – stands together with those seeking an end to inequality and discrimination.
We are encouraged by the setting up of the government’s new Hate Crime and Speech Unit, which should lead to more convictions and awareness.
Our global message on World Refugee Day 2020 is that ‘Everyone can make a difference, every action counts’. This has been truly exemplified when we see how everyone, including refugees, can contribute to protecting one another in times of crisis. We are being reminded that we are only as strong as the weakest member of our societies.
In facing up to a global pandemic and in standing up against inequality, we hope that people continue to support each other and show solidarity with the most vulnerable in our community. All of us have a role to play in order to bring about change.
Samar Mazloum is UNHCR representative to Malta.
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