Saturday, June 20, 2009

Remembering Refugees

Today is World Refugee Day, a time to remember the fate of those forced to flee their homes and to endeavor to ameliorate their situation. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is addressing these challenges by rolling out a new website that models several innovative strategies for intergovernmental and non-governmental non-profit organizations seeking to survive in this era of high technology and low finances. First, UNHCR is marshalling the power of cutting-edge technologies for visual communication and social networking. It's presenting a live webcast of life in a refugee camp in Chad housing Darfuris and in a camp for internally displaced persons in Colombia and offering a Google Earth tour of refugee camps in Chad, Thailand, Nepal, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya. UNHCR has also created a Facebook page, and Microsoft has pledged to donate $1 (up to $50,000) for every person who joins that cause, and to match dollar-for-dollar donations raised on Facebook. That brings us to the second interesting strategy -- seeking partnerships with and donations from corporations to top up funds received from states, UNHCR's traditional donors; in addition to Microsoft, UNHCR is working with Nike, Price Waterhouse, Merck, and other corporate behemoths on the campaign, which seeks to improve refugee childrens' access to education, sports, and technology. Finally, UNHCR has leveraged serious star power, splashing the face of its Goodwill Ambassador, Angelina Jolie, across its website and throughout the news media, presumably to appeal to Generation Y (also the group most likely to take advantage of the social networking options described above). It will be interesting to see how effective these strategies are in raising awareness of the plight of refugees as well as funds for the UNHCR.
The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants has also just released its annual report, which provides a list of the best and worst host states for refugees in 2008. Among the worst offenders: South Africa, which succumbed to xenophobic violence that killed over 60 and injured nearly 700 foreigners; Gaza, where Israeli offensives killed over 1400 and injured over 5000 Palestinians over three weeks in December; Malaysia, which sold at least 1000 deportees to gangs that operate along its border with Thailand; and Egypt, which arrested and even shot and killed African migrants trying to get to Israel. There are bright spots, such as Ecuador's efforts to register undocumented Colombians as refugees; Costa Rica's inclusion of refugees in the national economy, including the right to practice professions and access to health insurance on the same terms as nationals; and the establishment of soccer teams in Ugandan refugee camps as a way to address sexual and gender-based violence. Still, we've a long way to go to uphold the promise of the Refugee Convention.

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