Joining a number of NG employees watching the proceedings via close-circuit television in our cafeteria, I was humbled by the genuine sentiments and stalwart calls to action offered by the two women. The real show-stealer, however, was Rose Mapendo, the 2009 recipient of the Humanitarian of the Year award. Through tears punctuated with an endearing wit, the Tutsi survivor of violence in the Rwanda/Congo African region shared details of her harrowing journey from refugee to international advocate.
Rose Mapendo accepts the Humanitarian of the Year award from UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterrez.
As she told her story of flight from oppressive forces, captivity, and eventual salvation through international assistance, I reflected on the many geographic aspects associated with refugee crises. Here are five:
1) Circumstances producing refugees
The circumstances forcing citizens into refugee status frequently have geographic underpinnings. Civil war and government-sponsored brutality often emerge out of conflicts over natural resources (physical geography) and ethnic tensions (cultural geography). In Africa especially, these circumstances are largely the result of post-colonial power dynamics.
2) International awareness and recognition
The extent to which state governments, international organizations, and members of the public are aware of humanitarian crises and the plight of refugees is contingent upon multiple factors; including governmental transparency, freedom of the press, victims’ access to communications, geopolitics, etc. Increasingly, new technologies are providing deeper insights into conflicts occurring in remote areas of the world. Through Google Earth, for example, international audiences can view satellite images and photographs of events on the ground in places like Darfur.
3) International intervention
The decisions of state, international, and individual actors to
intervene in conflicts producing refugees, whether through military
retaliation, economic sanctions, or assistance, are largely determined
by international politics, and geopolitics. In Darfur, for example, the
Islamic government has been somewhat receptive to peacekeeping forces
from the African Union, but largely resistant to intervention by the
4) Refugee diasporas
To escape oppression, refugees often journey far from their
homelands through foreign, often formidable environments where they are
less likely to be discovered, and across international borders in
search of safe havens. Once out of harm’s way, refugees are often
placed in temporary camps in inhospitable border regions where
resources are scarce.
5) Refugee resettlement
After what can be years spent in “temporary” camps, refugees are faced
with the daunting challenge of where to go next. Sometimes, they are
able to reunite with their displaced family members and safely return
to their home communities. Many other times, they are unable or
unwilling to go back. Instead, often with the assistance of
international governments and aid organizations, they choose to settle
in a neighboring country or seek asylum in a nation across the world.
Then, they have to learn to assimilate into a new culture and
environment–Minneapolis is a lot different from Somalia! If friends and
family remain at home, finding ways to maintain communication and send
support can pose additional challenges.
Can you identify additional geographic aspects of refugee crises?