Civil Society

Refugees deserve compassion: a walk towards positive change

Khadidja, 25, a pregnant Sudanese refugee, who has fled the violence in her country, walks with her children beside makeshift shelters near the border between Sudan and Chad, in Koufroun, Chad May 9, 2023.

Khadidja, 25, a pregnant Sudanese refugee, who has fled the violence in her country, walks with her children beside makeshift shelters near the border between Sudan and Chad, in Koufroun, Chad May 9, 2023. Image: REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

Christa Odinga-Svatenson
Partnerships and Communications Manager, Forum Foundations, World Economic Forum
Diana Alvarez
Community Manager, The Forum of Young Global Leaders, Latin America, World Economic Forum
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  • An estimated 117.2 million people are expected to be forcibly displaced by the end of 2023.
  • Even when refugees reach their destinations — so called "safe havens" — their lives can be extremely difficult and undignified.
  • This year, the world must be compassionate towards refugees and implement inclusive policies. It is time for action, not words.

From the Central Sahel to the US-Mexican border and from Ukraine to Afghanistan, the number of people forced to flee war, violence and persecution has reached a record high.

According to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, an estimated 117.2 million are expected to be forcibly displaced by the end of 2023. These staggering numbers demand our attention and compassion. They tell a story of profound suffering and loss of life continuing unabated.

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The complex causes of flight and displacement

Desperate for protection and a better life, many embark on perilous journeys that test their resilience and hope. It is crucial that we recognise that the experiences of refugees are complex and diverse, and that every story of flight or displacement begins with a deeply personal decision. Each refugee faces a momentous choice, whether it is a hurried attempt to escape imminent death or a careful evaluation of risks and potential rewards. Some are driven by dreams for a fulfilling life and a sense of responsibility towards their family or community. Others are compelled by sheer desperation for survival.

The decision to undertake dangerous journeys in search of safety and a brighter future is not made lightly. Several factors drive individuals to leave their homes and communities, facing the unknown with trepidation. The lack of effective protection in countries of first asylum and transit, coupled with poor reception conditions, protracted refugee status determination procedures and limited livelihood support leave many with no viable alternatives. The absence of security, livelihood opportunities and access to education further compound their struggles.

“You have to understand, that no one would put their children in a boat unless the sea is safer than the land,” writes British-Somali poet Warsan Shire. “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”


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Challenges in safe havens

For those fortunate enough to reach places of safety, the reality can be daunting. Within the EU, for example, some member states have implemented emergency provisions within the Schengen Agreement, citing the perceived threats of terrorism and irregular migration. These measures, often resulting in discrimination against refugees and migrants of specific ethnicities, undermine the principles of compassion and solidarity.

Additionally, and regrettably, the refugee crisis has become a polarising issue, with some politicians exploiting it for their own gain. They exaggerate or distort the potential threats posed by refugees, using them as convenient scapegoats for various societal problems. Such actions deepen political polarisation and perpetuate misinformation. Consequently, the lives and well-being of those seeking refuge are compromised.

A call for empathy and compassion

Forced displacement has become a grave global crisis. It demands immediate attention and action from individuals, governments and international organizations alike. The International Rescue Committee is one of the organizations working tirelessly to ensure that the rights of refugees are honoured, and that they — and all those in humanitarian need — receive the life-saving aid that every human being deserves, including by working to treat the 45 million children who at this moment are suffering from acute malnutrition and at risk for dying of hunger. The organization calls on us to honour refugees this year with actions, not just words.

Amit Paley, Entrepreneur in Residence, International Rescue Committee.

We must strive to understand the complex reasons behind dangerous journeys and address the underlying issues that drive people from their homes. By fostering empathy, challenging political manipulation and advocating for inclusive policies, we can create a more compassionate world that recognises the inherent dignity and resilience of refugees.

While the world has witnessed numerous instances of displacement and forced migration, the response to Ukrainian refugees has demonstrated the remarkable ability for compassion and solidarity. This response not only offers hope and support to those affected by the Ukrainian war, but also highlights the pressing need to extend such compassion to other ethnicities seeking refuge worldwide. This response reflects the fundamental understanding that the protection of human rights and the alleviation of suffering should transcend national boundaries, ethnicity and political affiliations.

To achieve this, it is imperative for nations to adopt a more comprehensive and cooperative approach. This means implementing fair and efficient asylum procedures, increasing humanitarian aid and resettlement quotas and prioritising the protection and well-being of refugees. Additionally, promoting public awareness and understanding of the reasons behind forced displacement and challenging prejudiced narratives can help foster empathy and support for those in need.

By replicating this compassion towards refugees of all backgrounds, we can build a more just and inclusive world, where the rights and dignity of all people are respected and upheld.

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