World Refugee Day 2018: Protecting the Right to Seek Safety

By Jessica Farber, Ana Sofia Hibon and Celine Thomas 
Strategic Initiative Coordinators, SCSC 

This week, public outrage over the separation of Central American parents and children at the United States-Mexico border has saturated international news. This Zero Tolerance policy criminalizes all adult asylum seekers who attempt to cross the border irregularly, consequently placing their children in immigrant holding centres. This policy not only violates international law, but it also seeks to deter people fleeing for their lives from seeking safety by threatening them with family separation.

Last week on the Mediterranean Sea, a Médecins Sans Frontières ship rescued 630 African migrants from sinking rafts off the coast of Libya. The Italian government refused to allow the ship to disembark on its shores, as did the next nearest port, Malta. It was only days later, following international pressure that the Spanish Government allowed the ship to dock at the Port of Valencia. This added another four days to an already perilous journey, on a route where 500 people have drowned trying to reach safety in the first half of 2018.

All around the world, people are being displaced from their homes due to armed conflict, natural disasters, persecution and extreme violence. By the end of 2017, the number of forcibly displaced people hit an all time record of 68.5 million people. Despite decades old international treaties meant to ensure the protection of displaced peoples, we are seeing an increasing tightening of national borders.

This World Refugee Day, we would like to take the opportunity to draw attention to those people who are falling through the cracks. These are the hundreds of thousands fleeing direct threats to their lives who may never be able to make a claim for protection because the passage to safe countries is so dangerous, or because they are detained and deported before they can do so.

We also want to recognize the groundswell of ordinary citizens around the world mobilizing to show the humanity that governments do not always display.

In Veracruz, Mexico, a group of women known as Las Patronas (“The Bosses”) have been providing home-cooked meals and assistance to Central American migrants crossing through the town of Guadalupe since 1995. Everyday, these women wait next to the rails of the high-speed cargo train known as La Bestia (“The Beast”) and throw packs of food and water to hundreds of migrants who ride atop the train, fleeing gang violence, organized crime, and extreme poverty in the Northern Triangle of Central America.

In Brussels, the Citizen Platform to Support Migrants helps migrants find shelter in the homes of willing residents. Each night, a group of volunteers gathers migrants and residents in the town square, offering soup and organizing roughly 250 homestays per day. The Citizen Platform has galvanized a network of over 10,000 hosts since its inception last July, and was given a vacant office building by the City in December which it converted into a 200 bed shelter.

At the New York-Quebec border, where roughly 400 migrants are crossing each week in the hopes of seeking asylum in Canada, citizens on both sides of the line are taking action. Last summer, when border crossing peaked for the year, American citizen Janet McFetridge provided snacks and water to asylum seekers before they crossed over to Canada. This past winter, she visited the border nearly everyday to greet asylum seekers and hand out winter essentials, which she plans to do again this year.

As stories of crisis and catastrophe flood social media and news sites on World Refugee Day, it is easy to feel desensitized to discouraging statistics. In spite of this, citizen action and grassroots gestures of solidarity show that we can all play a role in supporting the plight of forced migrants. What is at stake in the global migration crisis transcends political rhetoric and divisions. This is a human story.

By choosing to show up in our local communities and engaging in individual acts of humanity, we can stand up against inhumane governmental policies and help protect the dignity of the human beings behind the numbers.