Refugees' plight brings home the need for peace

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 20 June, 2011, 12:00am


Take the final 'e' away from 'refugee' and a 'refuge' is made. Perhaps it is creating this refuge that is the goal of humanitarian work - to provide care, to reduce risks, to protect people's basic rights.

Today is World Refugee Day, a reminder that 10.3 million people have been forced to leave their home and country. There are another 27 million internally displaced people who flee but remain in their country.

The year 2010 has been called a 'killer year' by the UN, with over 370 natural disasters. In its response, Oxfam gives priority to people less likely to be assisted; for example, latrines for people with disabilities, private bathing facilities for women, soft food for elderly people.

In an armed conflict, alongside providing life-saving supplies, advocacy work must also be undertaken: conflict resolution, the protection of people's right not to be displaced, and the adherence to international resolutions. Maybe the dilemma of providing aid when it is really peace that is needed is best expressed by a little girl in Safwan, Iraq, who during the first Gulf war, in 1991, stood in a crowd of displaced people with a placard around her neck: 'We don't need food, we need safety.'

Women and children form the majority of refugees and internally displaced people and are at particular risk. In the ongoing civil war in Sudan, the militia has beaten, abducted and gang-raped women and young girls. Oxfam advocates better protection to prevent violence against girls and women, as well as peace for all.

In Mindanao in the Philippines, my home country, violence has been ongoing since 1971. I think of Babay Pedtucasan, 27, a woman who survived the brutal violence in 2000, when about one million people fled their homes. She says: 'It's a small miracle that my baby Yusra survived. I had difficulty producing milk because of the stress of the bombings.'

I also think of Haji Oranto, a fighter in Mindanao for more than 20 years. A devout Muslim and a devout soldier, he supported the call for an independent Islamic state in Mindanao. There was a time that he was so accustomed to gunfire that it sounded 'like music' but, gradually, Haji found it harder to justify violence. He stopped fighting in 2000. Today, Haji is an advocate with an alliance which Oxfam helped develop. They facilitate dialogue between the government and separatist groups, and empower people to advocate peace.

Haji says: 'War makes everyone a loser, and civilians lose the most.' This rings particularly true on World Refugee Day.

Imelda Linatok Abarquez is programme manager, humanitarian and disaster risk management, of Oxfam Hong Kong. A version of this article will appear in Chinese in the forthcoming book co-published by Oxfam Hong Kong and UNHCR, Without a Home in the World