June 20 is World Refugee Day, the goal of which is to raise awareness about the situation and plight of refugees globally. It is a time for all of us — those who have a place to call home, who have food on our plates and overflowing closets, who sit comfortably in the coolness of an air conditioner while scorching hot temperatures transform the winter soil into cracked dry earth, who sleep contentedly on clean sheets feeling safe and secure knowing that others are protecting us from possible danger, who take for granted the land we live on, the citizenship and passport we hold and the sense of belonging we have to a nation that is our harbor — to give a lingering thought to all those who would change places with us in the flicker of an eyelid.
According to the UN, we have reached numbers never seen before. By the end of 2018, 70.8 million people had been forced out of their homes because of either conflict or persecution, 30 million of whom are refugees. Over 50 percent of these refugees are under the age of 18 — a lost childhood and a futile future. Basic rights and dignity are words that do not exist in their vocabulary, whereas statelessness represents their status. It is said that one person is forcibly displaced every two seconds. They have been denied the fundamentals of life such as education and health care, freedom of movement and employment, safety and security.
We have seen the photos, read the numbers and uttered the appropriate words about the tragedy of mankind’s failure and the loss of humanity’s empathy. Palestinians, Syrians, Yemenis, Afghans, Iraqis, Rohingyas - people living in appalling conditions in tents on all continents, having reached shores of safety after days on precarious boats and dinghies in search of a better life. And today with the coronavirus pandemic raging around the world, we must ask: How many of their lives have been taken by COVID-19? With isolation and hygiene being practically impossible to enforce and insufficient funding for testing, the realistic numbers must be extremely high.
I will not talk about the aid that refugees receive from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, nor mention the millions of dollars that Saudi Arabia has pledged through the UN or the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center as the numbers are available online for anyone who is interested. Nor will I speak about the 2.5 million Syrians and 1.5 million Yemenis who have been invited to make Saudi Arabia their home, not labeled as refugees but as visitors, with the right to education, health care and employment. But I will mention that these numbers — and more — are numbers unknown to the West because the foreign media does not shed light on them.
I don’t know what can be proposed to give relief to their suffering other than what has been suggested before but, this June 20, let us at least pray for them … the refugees.
Hoda Al-Helaissi has been a member of the Shoura Council since 2013. She is also a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee within the Shoura.