What is a Refugee?

Introduction by NANCY RYERSON, IndyKids Volunteer
Illustrations by KIT MILLS

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Refugees are people who have had to leave their homes because of war or other violence, environmental disasters or a bad economy that leaves them unable to get jobs or make enough money. Sometimes refugees live in a house with people they know, but often, they are homeless or live in temporary housing for weeks, months or even years. According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are currently 45.2 million people in the world who have had to leave their homes against their will. That’s the highest number in 14 years. Almost half of them are children.

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War Refugees

Many refugees flee their own country in search of refuge in times of war, political oppression or religious persecution.

Since the start of the Syrian civil war, roughly 7 million Syrians have been displaced: 5 million within Syria, and 2 million to neighboring countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.

The civil war began in April 2011, when peaceful protests in Syria against the government took a turn for the worse. Protestors demanded that President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has been in power since 1971, step down. During protests in Damascus, the capital city, the Associated Press captured images of protestors holding signs with Assad’s face along with the message, “Leave. We don’t trust you. You will leave and we will stay because Syria is ours. Enough of injustice and killing.” The government responded to the demonstrations by killing, imprisoning and torturing protestors. Soon after, civilians formed rebel groups to fight against the Syrian government and the fighting escalated into a civil war.

In August 2013, the Syrian government was suspected to have used chemical weapons against civilians, killing hundreds of people. This produced many more refugees, many of whom lost loved ones in that attack. One million of these refugees are children.

Refugees live in tents or makeshift houses made out of rubble, plastic and wood. Kids living in the camps play in ditches often filled with contaminated water, or run barefoot through the rubble, trying to find some fun in their situation. Seventy-five percent of the refugee children are under 11 years old. While talking to a BBC reporter, Rasha, a 10-year-old living with her family in a refugee camp in Lebanon said, “I like going to school […] It’s Its better in Lebanon – there are no bombs here.”

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Environmental Refugees

The United Nations defines environmental refugees as “those people who have been forced to leave their traditional habitat, temporarily or permanently, because of a marked environmental disruption.” However, these refugees are not officially recognized or protected by international laws.

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, over 30 million people fled their homes in 2012 because of environmental disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, drought and storms. Janet Sawin, climate change expert at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., told National Geographic, “Human migrations are expected to increase as average global temperatures continue to rise and we experience rising sea levels, more severe weather disasters and other impacts as a result.” The UN predicts that there will be over 50 million environmental refugees by 2020.

The crisis of these refugees is not just one of far-off countries. On October 29, 2012, Superstorm Sandy destroyed homes in New York, New Jersey and other states, creating 776,000 environmental refugees.

Since the storm hit, New York City has spent over $73 million in FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) funds to house more than 3,000 evacuees through a program that placed them in area hotels. Three hundred and fifty homeless Sandy refugees remain in the hotel program, which the city has been fighting to end since FEMA announced that funds would stop after September. Nine-year-old Isaiah Douglas and his family were evacuated from Far Rockaway, Queens, to a shelter in the Bronx, and finally to a cramped hotel room in Times Square. Isaiah has had to switch schools numerous times, missing many days, and his parents are unsure where his family will live if they have to leave the hotel.

“I just want stability,” said Isaiah in an interview with the New York Daily News. “It really scared me to go through Hurricane Sandy.”

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Economic Refugees

When people have to leave their homes or communities to escape poverty, they are refugees, according to the nonprofit group Project Economic Refugee. This phenomenon occurs all over the world, but many do not realize that the United States is directly involved with a massive economic refugee crisis.

For years, Mexicans have migrated to their northern neighbor to escape poverty. In 1994, the United States, Mexico and Canada signed an agreement creating a free trade zone called the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This made it cheaper for North American companies to ship products to the other countries within the zone.

Supporters of NAFTA claimed that it would strengthen each country’s economy. However, its critics say that it is causing Mexicans to lose their jobs. Before the agreement, there was an economic wall between the United States and Mexico in addition to the legal wall keeping people from easily moving back and forth. NAFTA brought down the economic wall, opening up the Mexican economy to big U.S. companies, but the legal wall preventing free movement remains.

The result, according to CBS, is that “American farmers have flooded Mexico with cheap corn thanks to U.S. government subsidies — subsidies which were left unchecked by NAFTA. A U.S. farmer receives an average annual subsidy of $20,000. The Mexican government gives their farmers only about $100.” Mexican farmers are leaving their towns because many small farms cannot compete under these circumstances. An estimated two million farm workers have lost their jobs. Most of them crossed the U.S. border looking for alternatives, becoming economic refugees in the United States.

Since NAFTA, Mexican immigration to the north has skyrocketed. In 1990, 4.5 million Mexican-born people lived in the United States. In 2008 it peaked at 12.67 million. Despite these effects, the United States continues to create similar trade agreements with other regions of the world.

Glossary of Terms

chemical weapon: a device that uses chemicals to injure or kill people. They are a type of weapon of mass destruction (WMD), and are illegal under the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993.

FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency): an agency within the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that is responsible for coordinating federal responses to disasters that are too big for state and local governments to handle alone.

free trade zone: an area generally including two or more nations where products can move freely without being subject to certain import and export taxes. NAFTA created a free trade zone among the United States, Mexico and Canada.

subsidy: a sum of money given by the government to a company to decrease their production costs. This enables the company to keep the prices of their products low and competitive.

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