OPINION | Standing with refugees during these challenging times

Covid-19 has made a challenging situation unbearable for many refugees.
Covid-19 has made a challenging situation unbearable for many refugees.

This 20th World Refugee Day is commemorated under extremely tough conditions. Covid-19 has made a challenging situation unbearable for many who already struggle to secure income, food, and basic shelter, writes JJ Harder.

I always find it bittersweet to commemorate World Refugee Day each June. In my home state of Nebraska, I worked for an NGO helping refugees to integrate into our communities. Witnessing their resilience, drive, and rich cultures led me to apply to become a US diplomat - so that is why I am in South Africa today.

Each year, World Refugee Day offers a chance to raise awareness and mobilise support to help the men, women, and children fleeing war or persecution, but it's also a time to grapple with the enormity of a massive global challenge: nearly 30 million refugees, more than half of whom are children.  

This 20th World Refugee Day is commemorated under extremely tough conditions. Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, refugees and asylum seekers around the world struggled to obtain official recognition, open bank accounts, register their children for school, earn a living, and avoid xenophobic discrimination and violence. Covid-19 has made a challenging situation unbearable for many who already struggle to secure income, food, and basic shelter.  

The people of the US are standing with refugees during this difficult time. We are focusing our assistance to help displaced people as close to their home countries and communities as possible, without compromising their safety and protection.

Our aim is that they may be assisted quickly and, when circumstances permit, return home safely. We are working to increase humanitarian access and find long-term solutions for refugees and displaced persons, in collaboration with other governments, private sector donors, and civil society groups.  

I am proud to say that since 1975, the US has welcomed more than 3.3 million refugees for permanent resettlement. We continue to prioritise the admission of those persecuted because of their race, political opinion, nationality, or religion.

Globally, permanent resettlement is a solution for only a small percentage of the world's most vulnerable refugees, so we applaud the governments and communities around the world making critical contributions to support refugees, especially during this global health crisis.  

As the world's largest provider of humanitarian assistance, we work closely with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, International Committee of the Red Cross, International Organisation for Migration, and other organisations to help those most in need.

US assistance for global humanitarian crisis response totals more than $9.5 billion this year. US humanitarian assistance reaches tens of millions of displaced and vulnerable people worldwide and provides food, shelter, health care, access to clean water, education, livelihoods, and more.  

We welcome efforts to expand opportunities for refugees to thrive in their host nations, including through increased access to legal employment, education, and social services.

Greater refugee self-reliance benefits refugees, donors, and hosts, especially as conflicts are lasting longer and displacement figures continue to rise. We will continue to work with all refugee-hosting countries, including South Africa, to find durable solutions and help everyone towards securing a better quality of life.  

During the three years I have been in South Africa, the US government has funded projects to provide home health care for refugees in Johannesburg, teach English to refugees in Mitchells Plain, provide skills development and health services to refugees in Durban, and support LGBTI refugees in greater Cape Town.

We have been privileged to partner with dedicated and amazing local organisations, including PASSOP, JRS, the Denis Hurley Centre, Adonis Musati, the Scalabrini Centre, and Refugee Social Services.  

Amid the current Covid-19-induced anxiety I feel for my family, colleagues, and the world at large, this pandemic has at least allowed me time for greater reflection on the role I can play in bettering the community around me.

The emails and WhatsApp messages I receive from refugees and asylum seekers around the country are a reminder that the vulnerable will continue to suffer the most devastating effects of this pandemic. Here, as we work together to try to overcome this virus, I am hopeful we also will continue  to work together to help the most vulnerable among us - including those refugees who came here for a better life.  

-  JJ Harder is the human rights officer at the US Embassy in South Africa

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