According to a June report, nearly 60 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes at the end of 2014, 19.5 million of whom were refugees (up from 16.7 million in the previous year). Half of those refugees were children.
And there isn’t an end to the crisis in sight, due in large part to conflicts in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. There are currently more than 4 million Syrian refugees displaced throughout various countries, not including more than 7.6 million people internally displaced within the country. In July, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres called them “the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation,” while the number of global refugees and internally displaced people is at its highest point since World War II.
When those hard facts and figures fail to garner the general public’s attention, human stories and striking images — like the tragic photo of a Syrian refugee boy’s lifeless body that washed ashore in a Turkey resort town Wednesday morning — tend to build empathy and anger across the globe, shedding light on a terribly common occurrence.
But as the refugee crisis worsens — and the media coverage surrounding it increases — many are left wondering: What can I do?
From learning the real issues to supporting both large organizations and grassroots efforts alike, here are six concrete ways you can help during the refugee crisis.
1. Educate yourself about the global crisis.
Understanding that the refugee situation is complex, and due to many factors and moving parts over many years, is important toward acknowledging the international community’s role in aiding refugees today.
It’s crucial to know the definition of the term “refugee,” and why we need to distinguish it from the term “migrant.” According to international law, a refugee is specifically someone who is fleeing armed conflict or persecution and has sought refuge across international borders. The UNHCR puts it plainly: “These are people for whom denial of asylum has potentially deadly consequences.”
A migrant is someone who chooses to seek better living conditions in another country. While there, too, is certainly a migrant crisis, the distinction is important because countries deal with migrants based on individual immigration policies and processes, while international law dictates that countries have a responsibility to protect refugees. Conflating the terms can have dangerous consequences for refugees, and often gives way to political debate and xenophobia in place of relief during a humanitarian crisis.
Beyond politics, there are many physical challenges to fleeing a country as a refugee. For example, more than 300,000 refugees and migrants have traveled across the Mediterranean Sea this year — an incredibly dangerous sea route. Some 200,000 ended up in Greece while about 110,000 landed in Italy; so far, approximately 2,500 people have died or have gone missing.
Lastly, while the media’s focus is often on Europe, it’s important to note that the majority of Syrian refugees are displaced in neighboring Middle Eastern countries, such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, where massive populations are living in camps near the borders. The daily influx puts incredible strains on these host countries and their resources, especially when it’s a relatively small country like Lebanon, which currently has about 1.2 million Syrian refugees, while the country itself only has a population of about 4.5 million.
2. Donate to impactful organizations.
There are a number of organizations and agencies on the ground (and in the sea) working with refugees firsthand, many of which rely almost entirely on donations for their operations.
Here are just a few examples:
- The United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR)
The UNHCR, or the U.N. Refugee Agency, is the world leader in humanitarian response to the growing refugee crisis. It primarily deals with protection, emergency response, humanitarian assistance (including shelter, water and education), “durable solutions” (voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement), and minimizing environmental impact.
Learn how to donate here.
- Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International, or Doctors Without Borders
MSF works with refugees and internally displaced people around the world, setting up hospitals in refugee camps, providing medical, psychological and nutritional care, and ensuring access to safe drinking water, among other services.
You can donate directly here.
- International Organization for Migration (IOM)
The IOM is an intergovernmental organization that works to “promote humane and orderly migration” as well as international cooperation. It offers services and advice to governments, while also providing humanitarian assistance to refugees, the internally displaced and migrants in need.
Donate to IOM here.
- International Rescue Committee (IRC)
IRC works in more than 40 countries to provide health care, infrastructure, education, economic support, emergency relief and resettlement services for refugees, with special programs for women and children.
Submit online donations here.
- Save the Children
Save the Children has focused services for child refugees in Syria and neighboring countries, including setting up “child friendly” spaces, supporting schools, providing access to health care and food, and more.
You can donate to the Children’s Emergency Fund here.
- Greek organizations
3. Support smaller, grassroots efforts.
Beyond big NGOs, there are smaller efforts making huge differences. Here are two examples:
- Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS)
MOAS is a foundation based in Malta whose mission is to prevent migrant and refugee deaths at sea while crossing the Mediterranean in unsafe vessels. Through its rescue vessel, M.Y. Phoenix, and other vessels and aircraft, MOAS has saved more than 10,000 lives.
- Refugees Welcome
Flüchtlinge Willkommen, or “Refugees Welcome,” is essentially an Airbnb for refugees in Germany and Austria, created by a couple based out of Berlin. Refugees can apply to be matched with a participating German or Austrian resident as a roommate. More than 400 refugees have applied so far, and 124 have been successfully matched.
Refugees Welcome helps participants pay rent and utilities through donations. You can help by supporting the crowdfunding campaign here.
4. Support UNHCR’s private sector partnerships.
UNHCR has a number of private sector partners, such as the IKEA Foundation, Hewlett Packard, UNIQLO and other businesses and foundations, to increase assistance.
For example, in 2013 UNIQLO donated $1 million toward UNHCR’s emergency response to the Syria crisis, and has also regularly provided clothing for refugees.
You can check with individual partners to see how you can help (donating old clothes to UNIQLO, for example, is one way). If you want to set up a new corporate partnership, you can contact UNHCR here.
5. Volunteer your time and skills.
While donations to refugee organizations are certainly helpful, the scope of the problem requires more tangible help from those who can offer it.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has volunteering opportunities in local chapters around the world, while the IRC has opportunities in the United States, or you can create your own iRescue fundraising campaign. The American Refugee Committee International also has both domestic and overseas volunteer opportunities.
Online organizing and petition site Avaaz has a volunteering page set up for supporting refugees in the UK and to answer frequently asked questions.
6. Spread awareness.
When it comes to the refugee crisis, staying silent is one of the worst things you can do.
Spread awareness online and through social media, and generate discussions among your own communities about the issues refugees are facing.
And if you’re a teacher, you can use UNHCR’s resource for teaching young people about migration and refugees.
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