We’ve spoken a lot this year about the “front lines” of the coronavirus pandemic and about what our rights are to health, education, and job protection in the face of COVID-19. But today, on #HumanRightsDay2020 I think of another type of front line—the front lines where refugees live, perhaps the most vulnerable people in the world.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, today more than 79.5 million individuals have been forcibly displaced worldwide—with half of these people under 18 years old. Children and their families have fled conflict, such as the wars in Syria and South Sudan; disasters like the flash floods and cyclones in South Asia; and persecution for being the “wrong” race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, or social group.
I still remember the first refugee camps I visited in western Tanzania with a team of radio journalists years ago. As we entered one camp, we wondered where all the people were. The homes and marketplaces seemed abandoned. But when we stopped our vehicle, we could hear clapping and yelling and the sounds of children, so we headed toward that noise. Over a rise, we saw a school and a crowd of people. Some were sitting in trees, others were hoisted up on shoulders, a sea swirling wide into a circle. As we elbowed our way through the throng, we saw children in the midst of relay races, jumping competitions, and mini-soccer scrimmages. It was an event organized by teachers to mark the end of the school year. The adults presented a singular focus, cheering on the happiness of children, as if this were the most sacred of goals. Children allowed to be children—laughing and running toward something triumphant rather than fleeing unspeakable terror.
December 10 commemorates the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which sets the standard for rights to equality, dignity, life, liberty, and security of person for everyone. The protection of basic rights is meant to improve the well-being of all people. When we don’t live up to our responsibilities to protect these rights, we see human suffering on a global scale, with the ripple effects lasting generation to generation. No child should live with fear, violence, abandonment, or suffering—but far too many do.
There is much talk about building back better in a post-COVID-19 world. However, if we are to do this, the measuring stick for better must include what we do to ensure that the most vulnerable are safe, that their world is healthier and more hopeful, recognizing that their world is part of our own.
Amy West, EDC senior international technical advisor for youth and communications, is an international human rights expert who has worked for more than 20 years on complex humanitarian and development challenges affecting vulnerable populations.