The 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention settled on the definition of a refugee as someone who has fled his or her home and country owing to “a well-founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion”.
Just recently, the UN’s refugee agency released a report that said the total count of refugees world-wide in 2018 was approximately 71 million. For perspective’s sake, that figure includes people displaced from their homes but still living within their country of origin. Regardless, the number is staggering when you consider that half of all displaced people, are children.
How exactly does one get their brain around a figure like 71 million? The answer of course is that you cannot. And, if I may dwell on the obvious for a moment, the world we live in today bears less and less resemblance to the 1950s when the UN’s first work on the issue was launched. So, let’s bring the issue closer to home and closer to our time.
In 2015 I was assigned to manage underwriting operations in Louisiana. It had been 10 years since Hurricane Katrina struck the gulf coast, but I will tell you, that a decade after the fact – the state was still struggling with its impact. Katrina killed some 1800 people and forced over 1 million gulf coast residents from their homes. Most returned home shortly after the storm passed, but at least 250,000 people from the greater New Orleans area, left and never returned. Again, let’s calibrate our scales – the city of Garland has roughly 230,000 residents, Richardson has 130,000, the Lake Highlands area of Dallas has roughly 83,000 residents. My hometown of Normal Illinois has just over 50,000 residents.
So, while it’s hard for us to get our brains around what 71 million displaced persons looks like, I would argue that since the definition of refugee includes those displaced by natural and man-made disasters we need look no further than right within our communities. And furthermore, we need not wait for a natural or man-made disaster to occur. Where do the homeless fit within the definition of refugee? Do they? Does it matter?
Saturday is World Refugee Day. If you’re interested in reading more about what our denomination is doing on the issue, click on the link: https://pda.pcusa.org/page/world-refugee-day/. More information on the UN’s actions can be found at https://www.un.org/en/observances/refugee-day.
But please – do more than just click on the link. Just because we struggle to get our brain around an issue, does not mean that our hands, feet, arms and heart cannot do something about it. Volunteer and get involved!
Friends at the end of the day, it matters not what a refugee is running from. What matters is that we should be running towards them.
40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’
Matthew 25:40 (RSV)