By Carol Thompson O'Connell
According to the United Nations, every 20 minutes a person is forced to leave behind everything to escape war, persecution, or terror. Today, more than 70 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide, the highest number on record.
June 20 marks World Refugee Day, a global observance dedicated to raising awareness of the plight of refugees around the world. It's also a day to stand with these individuals and to let them know they have the support of the international community.
In his World Refugee Day statement, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said, “we recognize the plight of millions of refugees who have fled their homes due to conflict and persecution, and we reaffirm our commitment to provide life-saving assistance for the most vulnerable.”
Given the historic scale of the global displacement crisis, it is more important than ever for the international community to keep looking for ways to address these crises and respond in an effective, efficient, and comprehensive way. The United States, as the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance worldwide, maintains enduring humanitarian commitments by working to assist refugees and other displaced people. U.S. assistance saves lives and provides a foundation for recovery and renewed self-reliance through programs that provide emergency food and water, health assistance, shelter, job skills, education, and more.
One way U.S. humanitarian assistance does this is through programs like the Julia Taft Fund, which allows U.S. ambassadors to support small projects throughout Africa, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Latin America that help refugees, including refugees returning to their country of origin. This program was started nearly 20 years ago when on the margins of the U.S.-Southern African Development Community Forum, the Zambian Foreign Minister mentioned to former Assistant Secretary Julia V. Taft that Angolan refugees in Zambia needed hammermills in order to more efficiently grind the whole grains that they received. Upon returning to the United States, Assistant Secretary Taft established a Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM) fund to support Embassy efforts to provide short-term assistance and protection for African refugees. With the first grant, Embassy Lusaka purchased two hammermills. Subsequent grants provided for the purchase of low-cost but critical items that filled an immediate gap in refugee assistance.
In April 2019, through the Julia Taft Fund, the United States Embassy in Chad supported a local NGO, Association pour la Promotion des Libertés Fondamentales au Tchad (APLFT), to officially open “Mon Destin”, a salon for refugees. This salon aims to reduce sexual violence against urban refugee women and increase their self-reliance* through work in a salon. The 12 women chosen for the project went through an intensive apprenticeship at a local salon and are now well equipped to run their own business. APLFT assisted the refugee women with finding the location of the new salon and will continue to provide financial guidance as the co-op group begins to manage the salon. This is a great example of how our assistance is helping refugees gain new skills on their journeys to self-reliance, but also demonstrates the value refugees can bring to the economies of their host communities.
As Secretary Pompeo underscored in his statement, “When we help refugees become active contributors to local economies, it enhances long-term stability for all, including refugees, host communities, and the countries to which refugees may eventually return and help rebuild when possible.”
The best way to help the most people is to work to end conflicts that drive displacement in the first place, to target the application of foreign aid in a smarter way, and to promote burden-sharing with partners and allies. This means donors, governments, communities, and the private sector will need to step up to provide greater resources to address the urgent needs of refugees. We applaud those already on the frontline of that effort, and the United States will continue to work with all refugee-hosting countries to find solutions to help alleviate these challenges.
About the Author: Carol Thompson O'Connell serves as the Acting Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration.