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Column: When refugees flee for their lives, shouldn't we show interest?

Ireland has been a new home for thousands of refugees down the years – and showing support doesn’t have to cost anything, writes Sophie Magennis of the UNHCR.

Sophie Magennis

SIXTY YEARS AGO, Europe’s most destructive war left millions of traumatised people homeless and displaced. Realising these vulnerable people needed special protection world leaders took action. Thousands were resettled to new countries and the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was created.

In that same era, in 1956, a young girl of 17 arrived in Limerick as one of 350 refugees who came to Ireland fleeing the Soviet tanks after the Hungarian Revolution. After spending three years in a former army summer camp in Knockalisheen, the teenager who had been forced to flee from her entire family and home, and unable to return, made a new home for herself in the same city that had given her a safe haven.

Sixty years later, the 1951 Convention is still protecting millions of people forced to flee persecution. During that time, Ireland has shared a long history with those fleeing persecution and conflict and thousands of refugees have been given safe haven on this island.

Sadly, the causes of forced displacement have not gone away and today’s chronic conflicts are a cause for special concern: what we see is that as new conflicts flare, old ones are left unresolved. This leads to new displacement on the one hand and millions of people being prevented from returning home on the other. With few options these uprooted people can often resort to desperate means for escape, even if it means risking their lives.

From the beginning of 2011 the world has borne witness to many new and tragic displacement and refugee crises such as those seen in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire and the ongoing displacement of hundreds of thousands of people from famine stricken Somalia.

‘Everyone can show interest in others’

Sometimes the sheer enormity of these situations can seem overwhelming. However, UNHCR believes that every single person can make a difference and that significant impact can be felt when individuals do one thing to show their humanity to others who are in need; to think about the individual refugee story; to learn more about refugees and to show their support.

A group of individuals who epitomise the power of recognizing our shared humanity and who undertake simple but crucial actions for the displaced were last week awarded the Nansen Refugee award which is given annually to an individual or organisation for outstanding work on behalf of refugees. Yemen’s Society for Humanitarian Solidarity work around the clock to monitor about a third of Yemen’s 2,000 kilometre-long coastline, picking up survivors, giving them water, food, clothing and emergency care, and, all too often, burying those who die en route.

UNHCR Ireland understands that in the current domestic economic circumstances, people are often overwhelmed by their own daily struggles and challenges. However, in difficult economic times one thing everyone can do which doesn’t cost a single cent is to show interest in others, learn, and share their new knowledge and interest.

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Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Fridtjof Nansen, the first High Commissoner for Refugees. To mark this occasion and the 60th anniversary of the Refugee Convention, UNHCR Ireland is launching the “do 1 thing” campaign by asking individuals to reflect on the solidarity expressed 60 years ago, and to do one thing to show their support for refugees, asylum seekers and those in need of international protection here in Ireland and around the world.

By doing one simple thing, such as learning a fact about refugees, cooking a dish from a country where many refugees come from, watching a movie or reading a book about refugees you can help humanise an issue that is too often reduced to numbers. Because even one refugee without hope, is one too many.

Sophie Magennis is Head of Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Office in Ireland. More information on the do 1 thing campaign can be found at unhcr.ie/do1thing.

About the author:

Sophie Magennis

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