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Refugees Face Perilous Journeys


WASHINGTON — On this World Refugee Day, (Tuesday) the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies says the first quarter of 2023 has been the deadliest on record for refugees.

Last year wasn’t any better - the number of people who were forcibly displaced by war, persecution, human rights abuses and climate change reached an all-time high of 110 million, according to the UN refugee agency.

Each year, thousands of refugees risk everything by leaving their homes, but many never reach their destination. Last Wednesday’s sinking of a packed migrant boat off the coast of Greece is being described by EU officials as possibly “the worse tragedy ever” in the Mediterranean Sea. Dozens of people died and hundreds more were missing when the boat capsized and sank. More than 100 people were rescued.

​Georgios Vasilagkos, a physician with the Hellenic Red Cross who helped treat survivors at Kalamata Port last week, said most of the migrants were suffering from hypothermiaa, but all of them seemed to be more worried about what’s to come next.

“We focused mainly on the medical operations, however, we could see on their faces that they are struggling for survival. They don’t know what comes tomorrow,” said Vasilagkos. He said many patients tried to see if there were food supplies and clothing available to them.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, reported last week that the war in Ukraine, revised estimates for Afghan refugees, and the outbreak of new conflicts, especially in Sudan, are behind the sharp rise in the number of people forced to flee their homes.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said the growing number of forcibly displaced is being met with stronger hostility toward refugees worldwide.

“So, we see pushbacks. We see tougher and tougher immigration or refugee admission rules. We see in many countries a criminalization of immigrants and refugees, blaming them for everything that has happened, and so forth.”

International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies spokesperson Tommaso Della Longa told VOA fighting in one country often affects several others, noting how hundreds of thousands of Sudanese have fled into neighboring Chad, Ethiopia, Egypt and South Sudan.

No matter where refugees come from or why they are fleeing, Della Longa said, they all deserve to be treated with respect.

“As a humanitarian, I’m not even interested in why a person decided to migrate. My point is that person that migrated needs access to services – in regard to his or her own status – and needs to be treated in a human way and needs to be protected," Della Longa told VOA.

Diing Magot, a South Sudanese journalist who formerly reported for VOA, came to the United States last year to attend a conference. Weeks before then, security officers arrested her in Juba where she was covering a protest. She was detained for more than a week. When she was freed, she left to attend the conference and never went back for fear of reprisals. Magot said not everyone is friendly toward her in the Washington area.

“People have their perceptions about immigrants and refugees, and those are some of the challenges that I have faced while seeking asylum," said Magot.

Asked if anyone had been overtly hostile or acted in a certain way toward her, Magot said she could not provide a specific example, that it's more the feeling she gets in certain situations.

"Sometimes [it's] when they watch you, or even like when you just talk to someone, and the first thing people ask you is ‘why are you here? Why did you leave your country?' Then, you know, sometimes I feel like I have to defend myself.”

Many refugees from Africa flee to a neighboring country. The UNHCR’s Global Trends report says countries in sub-Saharan Africa host one in five of all refugees globally. The largest number – 4.7 million – are in East Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes region.