Students (pictured) are backpacking and traveling by choice. Sadly, millions of people are forced from their homelands, taking only what they can carry.
It's reasonable to expect that everyone reading this has a roof over their head, food on their table and a passport or identity document with their name on it. But 20.8 million people in the world aren't so lucky.
Today is International Refugee Day. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), 8.4 million people have left their countries because of war, ethnic, tribal and religious violence; they cannot return home. Another 6.6 million people are internally displaced - forced to flee their homes, but without crossing their country's borders.
"Stateless" people total 2.4 million worldwide, with another 1.6 million considered returnees (i.e. Palestinian refugees who fled their homes in 1948 and have recently returned to the West Bank). Another 773,000 people are asylum seekers, fleeing war or difficult circumstances in their own countries and trying to remain in Western countries. And 960,000 more people fall outside these categories, but are considered by aid workers to be "of concern."
So many heartbreaking true stories exist about refugees forced to flee their homes. In Africa, the Middle East, in Asia, in parts of Europe, in Central and South America - the stories are multiple and varied, but with a common thread - each person had a home once; each person - either compelled by unhappy choice or by force - lost that home and has been forced to seek shelter and asylum elsewhere.
I have a friend whose mother was working with the Queen of Libya and her father for an American oil company in Tripoli. They woke up one morning to find Muammar Qaddafi's tanks surrounding their house. They escaped with just the clothes on their backs, making their way to Malta and eventually Jordan. Today they have Jordanian passports and have rebuilt their lives in their adopted country.
I personally know many stories of Palestinians who have lived all their lives in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon; camps with one-room schoolhouses, basic housing structures made of concrete blocks and corrugated tin roofs held down by stones and children playing next to raw sewage running through the streets. In recent years, those conditions have improved, but not enough. I also know stories about those who returned home only to find their towns had been renamed and their houses replaced by newly-built settlements, no Arabs allowed. The Greek director Costa-Gavras explored this issue in his film Hannah K.
Paris is filled with refugees and asylum seekers from Africa and North Africa. You've seen stories in the news about the poor conditions in which many of them live. You've read news reports about refugees killed by fire in government-sponsored temporary housing in seedy hotels near some of the world's most expensive real estate. You've heard about weeks of rioting sparked by angry, disaffected and unemployed immigrant youths in the banlieues or suburbs.
You're well aware of the refugees from Mexico and Central America who risk their lives trying to cross the Mexican border into the United States to what they imagine is a better life. You may prefer the term "illegal immigrant." But what do we know of the terrible conditions; the unstable political climate from whence they came?
So we all know refugees; they're all around us. The question is, what are we doing to help them? How can we make certain that every person has a roof over his head; a valid passport or identity card; food on the table and in general, benefits from basic human rights? For information about ways to help the world's refugees, go here.
Photo of Liberians returning from Sierra Leone courtesy of UNHCR