World Refugee Day, according to its UN organisers, is a moment to “celebrate the strength and courage of people who have been forced to flee their home country”. In a world where negative narratives about refugees and asylum seekers abound, that is certainly a worthwhile goal.
But as a UN initiative, the day also smacks of the type of top-down humanitarianism that promotes a cause without giving the people directly affected power over what it means or the objectives it aims to achieve, some refugees say.
“A day like this should be designed by refugees themselves. But in practice, it’s mostly not,” said Matai Muon, a South Sudanese refugee who lived in Kenya and is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Oxford University in the UK.
Around the world, refugees are calling to have a greater voice in defining the stories that are told about their experiences, and in shaping the policies that affect their lives. That is one of the reasons behind the launch of Flipping the Narrative: Written by people with first-hand experience of forced displacement, the ongoing series aims to put their voices at the centre of conversations relevant to their lives.
For World Refugee Day, The New Humanitarian spoke to Matai and four of the other Flipping the Narrative authors to get a better sense of what the occasion means to them.
Ndizeye Innocent is a Burundian refugee living in Malawi. Sana Mustafa is a Syrian refugee, feminist human rights defender, and CEO of the NGO Asylum Access. Laura is a Colombian refugee and refugee advocate living in Ecuador whose full name is being withheld due to security concerns. And Joyeux Mugisho is a Congolese refugee based in Kampala, Uganda and the executive director of People for Peace and Defence of Rights, a refugee-led organisation.
The interviews were edited for length and clarity.
The New Humanitarian: What do you think of World Refugee Day?
Ndizeye Innocent: World Refugee Day is a truly amazing occasion because it serves as a touching reminder for refugees of the extraordinary challenges we have overcome when fleeing our home countries. But it is also a bittersweet reminder that the struggles refugees face often go overlooked and forgotten, and of the broken promises and ruined hopes many refugees continue to endure.
Sana Mustafa: I honestly don’t really think of it much. My existence and my work every day is living the reality and legacies of forced displacement, so this one day a year is not much different for me personally.
Laura: It is important to have a day to remember refugees. However, one day is not enough. Forced displacement is a problem that repeats itself day after day, and there is a need for much more visibility for this issue.
Matai Muon: World Refugee Day is an achievement in the sense that, otherwise, often refugees rarely get mentioned.
Joyeux Mugisho: World Refugee Day is an important day for refugees to advocate for their rights.
The New Humanitarian: What, if anything, does it mean to you? Does it feel like an important or significant day to you?
Ndizeye Innocent: World Refugee Day holds little significance to me personally. I have attended 17 of these occasions and have witnessed firsthand how the words spoken during these events have had no tangible impact on me or the other families I know.
“We are still considered a burden and seen as people who need to be taken care of, rather than as people who can work.”
Sana Mustafa: To me, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s only important because it encourages those who might not think or know much about refugees to learn more and sometimes to take action. It is also an opportunity for refugees to share their realities, which is great but also disturbing because the rest of the year not much attention is paid to refugees’ voices and expertise.
Laura: It is a day to make visible the unknown face of refugees. It is a day to recognise the struggles refugees face but also all of the positive things we are doing to rebuild our lives and our communities. The date stands out on the calendar for those of us who have experienced forced displacement or work on refugee issues. I try to take advantage of this day to reach out to those we don’t normally reach as they turn their gaze toward the issue for one day.
Matai Muon: World Refugee Day is a recognition that I exist in the world and that I can make a difference. It demonstrates, at least in principle, a willingness to accept human beings beyond the limits of borders. That being said, I don’t remember ever attending any World Refugee Day even in my 15 years of refugeehood! That doesn’t mean it is insignificant, but I just feel that refugees don’t need a special day in the first place. The strength and courage of refugees is clear-cut. States see it already, but they don’t enable it.
Joyeux Mugisho: Refugee Day doesn’t mean a lot to most refugees because we are still considered a burden and seen as people who need to be taken care of, rather than as people who can work and need to be given an opportunity to show our strength.
The New Humanitarian: World Refugee Day is meant to celebrate the strength and courage of people who are forced to flee their homes. Do you feel it does that?
Ndizeye Innocent: World Refugee Day is supposed to be a day to acknowledge and relate to the hardships endured by refugees. It is supposed to serve as a reminder of the shared responsibility we have to support and advocate for a better future for all individuals affected by displacement. But for some reason, it does not.
“Many actors put on symbolic events without really taking long-term action or pushing for solutions.”
Sana Mustafa: That might be the intention, but many actors put on symbolic events without really taking long-term action or pushing for solutions to shift power back to refugees so they actually have the strength, dignity, and resources they need to thrive.
Laura: Yes, I believe that strength and resilience are the essence of what it means to be a refugee. Being a refugee is not just defined by the difficult journey or adaptation to a new environment. Refugees exist in thousands of contexts around the world, and many do extraordinary work that goes unrecognised, becoming hidden heroes.
Matai Muon: To a very small extent, yes. But I would advocate for more active engagement with refugees and not just the choreography from UN agencies and NGOs we see during this day.
Joyeux Mugisho: No one can celebrate being a refugee. As much as we are strong and have survived the worst, we do not celebrate being refugees. When someone is forced to flee their country, all they need is a durable solution to live their lives with dignity in the country where they sought refuge.
The New Humanitarian: Do you feel that the issues you face as a refugee are given attention on World Refugee Day? Does the day help push for solutions to these issues?
Ndizeye Innocent: To me, Refugee Day often feels like any other day, with the only notable difference being the gatherings at the football ground in Dzaleka refugee camp, where I live, where Malawian ministers, UNHCR representatives, and other concerned organisations give speeches. Unfortunately, it seems that during these speeches, false hopes about durable solutions are frequently communicated without any tangible progress being made towards actually pushing for practical solutions.
Sana Mustafa: Not really. I think the majority of events and activities around this day are symbolic and don’t address the root causes of forced displacement, the oppressive and colonial practices of the refugee protection sector, or encourage brave conversations around allyship. Unless we use this day to hold stakeholders accountable, create space for courageous and vulnerable conversations, and demand commitment to actions that will shift power and resources to refugees, then it’s just another day, except with a bit more social media posts about refugees.
Laura: As a UN celebration, it manages to bring attention to refugees from sectors that are not usually engaged in the issue. However, I think that the way these messages are communicated could be improved to make decision makers and stakeholders actually take action.
Matai Muon: It varies depending on the region. In Kenya, the day is often an opportunity for politicians and UNHCR to share “milestones” achieved with some staged shows to communicate impact. I think it should be more than this.
Joyeux Mugisho: Solutions will come when refugees are given a chance to decide what issues to focus on and when we are given a voice to speak up about it and a platform to codesign solutions with other stakeholders. Refugees understand their own situation better than anyone else. They should be trusted to design solutions and programmes that will help eradicate the said problems.
The New Humanitarian: The theme this year is “hope away from home”. Do you have any thoughts about that theme?
Ndizeye Innocent: The theme and approach often fail to resonate with many of us refugees. This is a dire and challenging time for refugees in Malawi. People’s hopes are continuously being shattered, particularly through the forced relocation of refugees from the capital city to Dezaleka camp. The relocations have resulted in a significant loss of hope among many refugees, further worsening their already difficult circumstances.
“We shouldn’t have to continue to show the world our resilience – which comes from trauma and loss – so they can celebrate it without doing anything to change the status quo.”
Sana Mustafa: I think it’s a cliché and apolitical theme. Hope is the one thing that the majority of forcibly displaced people don’t lose because, simply, we don’t have any other choice. The theme should be about ensuring we have our basic human rights, such as the right to exist legally, walk freely, and have agency over our own lives. We shouldn’t have to continue to show the world our resilience – which comes from trauma and loss – so they can celebrate it without doing anything to change the status quo.
Laura: I feel the themes UNHCR uses for this day are usually similar. They could be improved.
Matai Muon: That’s a very problematic choice of words. Refugee students rarely get employed after school in host countries. Most end up doing whatever job is available rather than working in a profession that uses the skills they’ve acquired. Countries like the UK are trying to send asylum seekers away to developing countries like Rwanda. If this is the definition of hope, then we need to redefine it altogether.
Joyeux Mugisho: We can’t talk about hope when there are no durable solutions for refugees. We can’t talk of hope when we are still being forced to flee every day. There is no hope when refugees’ food rations are being cut or when support programmes are underfunded. When refugee voices aren’t being taken into consideration, there is no hope. Where is hope when the large numbers of refugee children are out of school?
The New Humanitarian: Do you feel like refugees have a voice in shaping what World Refugee Day looks like?
Ndizeye Innocent: Refugee Day provides a platform for refugee leaders to voice the issues and challenges faced by refugees. It is disheartening to see that no action is taken to address these concerns. The opportunity to speak up is valuable, but without actions and meaningful change, it can feel like a mere symbolic gesture.
Laura: Refugees are the theme, but not the actors.
Matai Muon: The day fulfils donors’ needs more than anything else. A day like this should be designed by refugees themselves, but in practice it’s mostly not. Instead of having World Refugee Day, can we have World Refugee Days? Refugees' talents and strengths can be celebrated everyday.
Joyeux Mugisho: Refugees are often invited to events on this day by NGOs and UN agencies without knowing the agenda or what they are meant to celebrate. Refugees aren’t asked about what subjects the day should focus on. After the day, no one knows what next steps will be taken. So this year refugee-led organisations and refugee leaders in Uganda picked our own theme for World Refugee Day: “Nothing about us, without us”.