Commentary

Holding on to home in war and peace

Syrian refugee May, 8, with a doll and letter from British girl Mimi, 5, which were delivered by UNHCR staff, outside her tent in Domiz Camp, Iraq. Photo: UNHCR
Photo: UNHCR/Brian Sokol
Photo: UNHCR/Brian Sokol
A mother who fled her village in Sudan's Blue Nile State with a wooden pole on which she carried her six children, photographed as part of The Most Important Thing project. Photo: AP
Published: 4:02 AM, June 21, 2013
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My father likes to tell the story of how, when he was five, his father was hit by a Japanese aerial bomb only days before the country occupied Singapore in 1942. For weeks, our relatives searched for Grandpa in the hospitals and morgues. Surrounded by cooing neighbours, Grandma wailed the whole time, thinking he was dead.

One day he woke up in a hospital bed with a face wrapped in bandages and sent word that he was alive. Suddenly everyone could breathe again. Grandpa lost many teeth, was scarred in the jaw and, for years after, would find bits of shrapnel stuck to plasters that he peeled off — but at least he was back.

More than 70 years later, stories of the war in Singapore are becoming a distant memory. My generation is lucky to have known only peace. But conflict and family separation are still daily realities in many parts of the world.

Yesterday was World Refugee Day, a day to pay tribute to the courage and resilience of people forced to flee their homes because of war and persecution.

According to figures just released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 45.2 million people were in situations of displacement by the end of last year. This includes 15.4 million refugees, 937,000 asylum-seekers and 28.8 million people forced to flee within the borders of their own countries.

Fifty-five per cent of all refugees come from Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Syria and Sudan. Forty-six per cent of refugees are children below 18 years of age. As if that wasn’t bad enough, every 4.1 seconds, someone new is displaced from his or her home.

SHELTER IS NOT ENOUGH

Conflict and displacement are not someone else’s problem. In South-east Asia, inter-communal violence has uprooted as many as 140,000 people in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. As homes burnt last June and October, families fled with only the clothes on their backs. Many sought refuge in local villages, in tents and makeshift shelters.

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