What is it like to be a refugee?

A young Sudanese refugee girl in distress.
Try to imagine you are living in peace, but suddenly your whole world changes. Overnight, neighbors become enemies. Soldiers are coming who will loot and burn your home. You have ten minutes to pack and flee for your life. You can take only one small bag, since you will have to carry it for many miles. What will you put in it?"

You leave amid sounds of gunfire and artillery. You join others who are also fleeing. Days pass; you shuffle along hungry, thirsty, and unbelievably tired.

To survive, you must drive your body beyond exhaustion. You sleep on the ground. You forage in a field for something to eat.

You approach a safe country, but border guards will not let you cross. They search your bag and seize everything of value. You find another checkpoint and cross the border.

You are put into a squalid refugee camp, fenced with barbed wire. Although surrounded by others who share your plight, you feel alone and bewildered.

You miss the companionship of your family and friends. You find yourself utterly dependent on outside assistance.

There is no work and nothing to do. You fight feelings of hopelessness, despair, and anger.

You worry about your future, knowing that your stay in the camp will likely be temporary.

After all, the camp is not a home—it is like a waiting room or a warehouse of people that nobody wants. You wonder if you will be forcibly sent back to where you came from.

This is the experience of millions today. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), during the year of 2013, an average of 32,200 people per day was forced to flee war or persecution.

An additional 33.3 million people were displaced within their own countries. Mostly women and children.

As offspring's of war and calamity, refugees are set a drift in a world that does not want them, a world that rejects them, not because of who they are, but because of what they are.

What complicates the refugee crisis?

Immigrants in a camp in an European country.

Those refugees who reach a rich nation frequently find that their situation has been complicated by the many thousands of people who have migrated to the same country for economic reasons.

These economic migrants are not refugees fleeing war or persecution or famine. 

Instead, they have come seeking a better life—a life free from poverty.

Because they often pretend to be refugees, beleaguering the asylum networks with false claims, they make it harder for genuine refugees to get a fair hearing.

The influx of refugees and immigrants has been likened to two streams that have flowed side by side into wealthy countries for years.

However, increasingly strict immigration laws have blocked the stream of economic immigrants. Thus, they have become a part of the refugee stream, and this stream has overflowed to create a flood.

Knowing that it might take several years to examine their asylum request, economic migrants reason that they are in a win-win situation.

If their request for asylum is accepted, they win, since they can remain in a healthier economic setting.

If their request is rejected, they also win, since they will have earned some money and learned some skills to take home with them.

As increasing numbers of refugees, along with immigrants, stream their way, many countries are pulling in the welcome mat and slamming the door. Some have closed their borders to those in flight.

Other countries have introduced laws and procedures that just as effectively deny entry to the refugees. Still other countries have forcibly returned refugees to the lands from which they fled.

Adding to the problems of being a refugee is the aspect of xenophobia—fear and hatred of foreigners.

In many countries people believe that outsiders threaten their national identity, culture, and jobs.

People with such fears sometimes express themselves in violence and physically harm refugees.

The problem of returning home

Refugees from Angola returning home.

Throughout the world, humanitarian organizations strive to help those displaced by war and other problems. A major way they help is by assisting refugees to return to their native countries.

Refugees abandon home, community, and country because they fear they will be murdered, tortured, raped, imprisoned, enslaved, robbed, or starved.

So before refugees can safely return home, the problems that caused them to flee must be solved.

Even when armed conflict finally ends, an absence of law and order often discourages people from going home.

Returning is not easy. Often the countries to which the refugees return are in ruins—with villages reduced to rubble, bridges destroyed, and roads and fields sown with mines.

Thus, the returning refugees must rebuild from scratch not only their lives, but also their homes, schools, health clinics, and everything else.


Callously closing our eyes to the plight of millions of refugees will not make the problem go away.

As long as there is political strife, as long as there is oppression, as long as there is starvation and poverty, there will be refugees.

Hence, solving the refugee crisis will mean solving the related problems of war, repression, hatred, persecution, and other factors that send people running for their lives.