Each year World Refugee Day falls on the 20th of June and on that day, we honor the resilience and courage of refugees worldwide. Refugees are not significantly different from those of us reading this today. They are ordinary people worthy of respect, like you and me, but with a fundamental and crucial difference. These people have been displaced. According to the recent Global Trends Report published by the UNHCR, there are more than 65 million refugees that have been forcibly removed from their homes due to persecution, violence, and war. As a result, one in every 113 people worldwide are displaced, and alarmingly, 51% of these displaced individuals are children.
Now, these numbers may not have a tangible effect on the average Estonian inhabitant and may even create a desire to ignore the uncomfortable truth and direct attention away from the issue- but we should remember that behind each statistic is a living human being. Each of them possessing their own story, hopes, family, and loved ones.
The question remains. Can we do something to help them? Can we alleviate their plight and empower ourselves and the refugees and change the situation for the better?
Only a few years ago, Estonia might have felt that the refugees were an issue that was distant and did not concern them. In truth, the number of people arriving to Estonia and applying for asylum was rather small and statistically insignificant. However, in 2015, over one million refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea and landed in Europe. The situation in Europe grew more serious, and as a result, Estonia kindly agreed to participate in the EU relocation program. In solidarity, Estonia reached out to nations, such as Greece and Italy, in order to assist with the large number of refugees arriving in Europe. To this day, Estonia has relocated 150 people, something that is a commendable and worthwhile achievement. Their success is highlighted by the fact that there still exist a few EU countries that have yet to relocate a single refugee. Estonia has shown itself to be a capable country with a progressive vision and desire to take leadership when it comes to the refugee crisis. One such example is Estonia’s commitment to digitalisation and its constant investment in the development of new innovative technologies.
The success of a few EU countries should not deter us from the fact that still a lot remains to be done, both in Estonia and in the EU as a whole. The greatest obstacle we face is the integration of refugees in the communities that are sheltering them. Ultimately, inclusion requires opening our communities, minds, and hearts to those that are arriving in Europe. The various national societies within the EU need to participate wholeheartedly and in unison. Everyone from students, business leaders, activists, teachers, faith communities, journalists, in fact, all of society, need to participate in the welcoming and integration of refugees.
Whilst it is tempting to allow domestic economic instability, political upheaval, and violence to make us want to close our doors to refugees and migrants, we must rise above our struggles and provide humanitarian aid to those in need of help. We have witnessed this during the past few years, as some EU nations restricted access to their territories to the refugees and shifted the brunt of the responsibility to other member states. We have seen the genuine efforts some nations have made to welcome refugees, and we are pleased to see them happening even today, but what is lacking is a common and united EU response addressing the refugees and their subsequent integration into local communities. Without a proper welcome and an orientation and integration program, refugees are doomed to failure when it comes to contributing and integrating into their respective host countries.
As a result, the UNHCR has published a document titled “Better Protecting Refugees in the EU and Globally” in which a set of practical proposals, including on the integration of refugees are outlined. We, amongst other things, advise nations to allocate more attention and resources for the integration of refugees. We urge nations to spend at least 30% of the financial support, provided by the EU Asylum, Migration, and Integration Fund, on refugee integration. Unfortunately, at this moment, some states do not spend a single Euro of this aid on integration.
This year, as Estonia takes leadership of Europe during its EU presidency, the UNHCR express hope and confidence that Estonia can facilitate a tangible implementation of the aforementioned UNHCR proposals.
When the task of tackling refugee and migration issues seems to be insurmountable, we should perhaps pause for a moment and think about refugees themselves. They have lost everything – their homes, their work, often their friends and relatives.
And still they find the strength to start a new life in a new place. Given the right environment, our experience is that refugees bring solutions, not problems. It is worth to remember that the majority of refugees are not in Europe. 84% of them worldwide are hosted in low and middle-income countries. We in Europe should ask ourselves – if we cannot share responsibility, how can we tell those countries to take refugees?
And finally, World Refugee Day is also a good time for everyone to contemplate what each of us can do to overcome indifference or fear and embrace the idea of inclusion, and welcome refugees into our own communities.