Forced to flee from conflict or disaster, refugees have nowhere to go but to seek temporary shelter in camps, before settling in their new home countries
Lynn Dang was just four years-old when she and her family escaped the Vietnam War. After days at sea, she arrived at a Malaysian refugee camp set up by the UNCHR. She eventually settled in Australia with her family after a year in Malaysia.
“There were many boats that did not make it,” says Dang, “Thanks to the UNHCR, which I also sit on the board of, I’m in a privileged position to give back now,” she adds.
Dang is one of the lucky ones who was given permission to settle in her adopted country of Australia. But others have not been so lucky.
With their homes in danger or destroyed, refugees can spend decades living in camps, unable to return home due to instability, or not granted permission to stay in another country.
Dang shared her experience of being a young refugee at the panel discussion during the private screening of The Swimmers, organised by UNHCR, Greater Business Club and the Great Room in recognition of International Women’s Day. The screening was held at The Projector.
A Netflix Original, The Swimmers tells the true story of Syrian refugee sisters, Yusra and Sara Mardini, who escape the Syrian conflict to pursue their dream of competing in the Olympics.
Today, there are 103 million refugees, or about 1.2 percent of the world’s population. About 6.8 million of them come from the Syrian Arab Republic, and 1.5 million children were born in refugee camps between 2018 to 2021.
The panel discussion welcomed the following guests, all of whom are involved in humanitarian work with refugee camps. They are:
- Lynn Dang, HR Lead, Microsoft & Vietnam, former refugee and Board Member for Australia for UNHCR
- Jonathan How, Founder and Director of Relief Singapore
- Galyna Kogut, President of the Ukrainian Club in Singapore
The panel discussion was moderated by Ann Moey, Partnerships Lead (Singapore) at UNHCR.
Here are some powerful stories shared during the event:
Ukrainians displaced by war
President of the Ukrainian Club Singapore Galyna Kogut, whose close relatives still live in Ukraine amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine War, shared how ordinary citizens have had their lives upended, and are now living as displaced people, away from conflict zones or in neighbouring countries.
Each speaker took us through the realities of being a refugee highlighted by pictures and anecdotes. Here are some snippets from Kogut’s presentation:
- Moving around is extremely hard due to the many blockades every few kilometres throughout the conflict areas. Elderly people, who are not very mobile and are unable to flee, hunker down in bomb shelters as a way to keep safe.
- The war has also caused separation of families, with some children left to travel hundreds of kilometres alone just to be reunited with their parents. Oftentimes, these children have their names and their parents’ contact details written on their bodies. These writings serve an important purpose – if their parents become casualties of the war, these children can be identified and cared for by humanitarian organisations.
- Day-to-day necessities like electricity, food and water are scarce due to infrastructure damage. Those who have stayed behind rely on volunteer distributions of supplies and rations. Volunteers also distribute firewood and winter clothes to keep Ukrainians warm in the winter months.
The UNHCR was also on the ground distributing cash to the internally displaced, who found themselves out of work for extended periods as a result of the war.
“Like an open prison”
In The Swimmers, the Mardini sisters went in search of a swimming pool after reaching Germany, refusing to spend their time in the refugee camp waiting to be processed.
Founder and director of Relief Singapore Jonathan How, who has supported Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh, shared how a feeling of hopelessness pervades refugee camps.
He likens the reality of living in a refugee camp to an “open prison”. “People are depressed. The situation is not good, and there’s nothing to do,” he says.
Currently, nearly 600,000 Rohingya refugees live in Kutupalong Refugee Camp, the largest refugee camp in the world.
Essential activities such as education are gravely lacking from camps, where 50 percent of inhabitants are children. It is only recently that the Bangladesh government has allowed education for primary school-aged children only.
“That’s why programmes are so important to the refugees”, says Moey, Partnerships Lead for UNHCR. “It could be sports, music or activities to empower these refugees”.
One example is the mobilisation of volunteers within the camp during Covid.
“UNHCR and our partners on the ground trained our refugees to go around the camp educating refugees with the right information about Covid. There was a lot of misinformation going around, and people were just doing the wrong things,” she says. “They received a stipend as well, and such programmes are very important for their mental health,” she continues.
Photo by Ahmed Akacha
How the international community can help
Fortunately, there are many ways that members of the public can help the displaced and the refugee population. All four speakers at the discussion recommended the following ways to help:
- -Dang believes greater awareness surrounding the plight of refugees and displaced people will go a long way. “I think movies like this really personalise what it is like for people going through this,” she says. She adds that taking action, whether it is through a small donation, spreading awareness or volunteering in person, will add up in terms of collective support for refugees.
- For Kogut, coordination between organisations on how to effectively help refugees and displaced people is much needed. Coordination efforts could include assessing on-the-ground needs and finding ways to deliver help in a more targeted manner.
- While this doesn’t address the refugee plight directly, How says pursuing one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals will make a difference in helping society and the environment. “They will help make the world a safer place,” he says.
- As for Moey, she requests that donations be made towards UNHCR’s efforts. “Funds go a long way”, she says, “even if it’s for basic items such as winter clothes, blankets, mattresses and plastic sheets”.
“They all make an internally displaced or a refugee feel safer. And it gives them hope for the future as well,” she adds.