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Understanding the Refugee Experience
In honor of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations
Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Editor’s note: In commemoration of this date in 1948 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), December 10 is designated Human Rights Day. The UDHR is the foundational document for international understanding and enforcement of individual rights and freedoms for “all members of the human family,” no matter who they are or where they live.
Consisting of 30 articles related to civil, political, social, cultural and economic rights, the UDHR speaks specifically of refugees – people “forced to flee his or her country because of persecution, war or violence” according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – in Article 14, section 1:
Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.
In honor of this year’s 70th anniversary of the UDHR, we’re sharing an adapted blog article from our partners at the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. Originally posted for World Refugee Day in June 2016, this post by Deanna Hendrick provides invaluable historical context and insight for considering current refugee crises and human rights violations around the world.
In the Visual History Archive, testimonies of genocide survivors include their personal experiences as refugees. As of now, the world is facing the biggest refugee crisis since World War II. To shed light on the current and past refugee crises, here are 10 things you may not know about the refugee experience.
10 Interesting Facts about the Refugee Experience
1. Refugee vs. Displaced Person
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, refugees are people who are outside the country of their nationality "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted.” In contrast “Internally displaced persons (IDPs) have fled their homes but have not crossed an international frontier.”
2. Opposition to the admission of refugees
Responding to the current refugee crisis has been controversial for several nations, including the United States. Compare today’s situation to World War II, when many countries were also skeptical of taking in refugees. For example, on May 13, 1939 a German ocean liner, the St. Louis, set sail from Hamburg, Germany, bringing 937 passengers to Havana, Cuba. Almost all of the passengers were Jewish refugees, most of whom were German citizens.
As the ship set sail, it turned out that the political situation in Cuba would result with these refugees being turned away at their destination. When the St. Louis arrived in Havana, only 28 passengers were allowed entrance into the country. The refugees turned to the U.S. for assistance but received no response, and the remaining 908 passengers were forced to return to Europe.
According to Global Citizen, children make up about half of all refugees (46%). As refugees, children experience violence, hunger and possible separation from their families. Throughout history parents have had to make the difficult decision to send their children away with strangers with the hopes of saving their lives.
In 1938, British stockbroker Nicholas Winton organized the safe transport of 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to Britain before the outbreak of World War II. Eight trains in total carried children from Prague to Britain, where local families took them in. Many of the children’s parents were later killed at Auschwitz. The Kindertransport is mentioned in over 700 testimonies in the Visual History Archive.
4. The current refugee crisis
According to The Washington Post, [in 2016] there are more than 51 million people displaced around the world due to conflict and violence. In World War II, there was an estimated 81.6 million displaced people.
5. Not all refugees live in camps
In her testimony with the Visual History Archive, Ida Chait talks about her experience as a Jewish refugee in Komi, Russia, and having to relocate to Samarkand, one of the oldest cities in central Asia, in cattle cars on a journey that took over 30 days. She and her family had to live on the streets of Samarkand for 6 weeks, until her father was able to get a job as a tailor.
6. Refugee camps can feel like a prison
Many Syrian refugees are seeking refuge in camps that are much like jails. According to National Geographic, refugees are registered and then confined into a camp enclosed by a fence. Inhabitants are not allowed to exit and re-enter on their own free will and are under constant guard by armed police officers.
It is a common theme throughout history - after fleeing their homes, escaping war and genocide, many refugees have been interred in similarly prison-like camps.
7. The continued persecution of Yezidis
Yezidis, a Kurdish minority who follow the Yezidi (or Yazidi) religion, were also persecuted during the Armenian Genocide. Between 200,000 and 1,000,000 Yezidis today live in eastern Turkey, northern Syria and northwestern Iraq.
The Visual History Archive’s Armenian Genocide Testimony collection contains a handful of testimonies from Yezidis survivors who fled Ottoman military incursions in 1918 against Armenian military units in the modern provinces of Kars and Iğdır (both in modern-day Turkey). The interviews are rare due to the lack of awareness and knowledge of the Yezidi experiences during the period. Considering the recent genocide perpetrated against Yezidis by ISIS forces in the summer of 2013 in Sinjar, Iraq, these interviews give light to an earlier persecution 100 years ago.
What do Albert Einstein, Freddie Mercury, Madeleine Albright, Sigmund Freud and Gloria Estefan have in common? They were all refugees who went on to have profound impact around the world. They are just a small sample of the many refugees who have shaped entertainment, politics and science. In the Visual History Archive, discover testimonies from politicians, world leaders, athletes, entertainers and fashion designers who speak to their own experiences as refugees.
9. The term “Refugee” in the Visual History Archive
The Visual History Archive contains 53,000 eyewitness testimonies from survivors and witness to the Holocaust, Armenian Genocide, Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda and the Nanjing Massacre. The term refugee is mentioned in 14,495 of these testimonies. In the archive there are 374 indexing terms mentioning “refugee,” ranging from “refugee children” to “refugee camp malnutrition” to “anti-refugee experience.”
10. Listen to Refugee Experiences from Around the World
Watch clips of video testimonies from genocide survivors who recall their experiences as refugees in testimonies preserved in the Visual History Archive to learn more about the impact of war, genocide and massacre forcing individuals from their homes.
About the Visual History Archive
Survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides have shared their stories and experiences in a collection of more than 55,000 two-hour audio-visual interviews with USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History. ProQuest is honored to be in partnership with USC Visual History Archive to offer this material in its entirety to a broader audience and to contribute archival-quality transcripts of all of the testimonies. Learn more and watch the videos.