Stand as one with refugees and migrants

Helping people to find a safe haven in a world that is choked by violence, conflict and disaster is what gives us our humanity. It is only when we Stand as One with people forced to flee their homes, that this crisis will be overcome.

In Europe we saw a further tightening of borders and growing hostility to migrant populations, adding increased refugee deaths, more unaccompanied migrant children, forced deportations to Turkey and abuse by EU border officials to the journey of despair and insecurity that many thousands of people already faced.

Usually dancing with the St Petersburg Ballet, Russian ballerina - Irina Kolesnikova - joined Oxfam in a visit to a refugee camp in Tabanovce, Macedonia on the border with Serbia. At the peak of the crisis, 10,000 people a day were arriving here by train. Only ever intended as a transit point for onward journeys, this area turned into no-man’s land when borders were closed. Thousands of people – many of the children – were still stranded. “I found it unbearably moving when I sat chatting to a young mother, 18 year old Maryam, whose husband and father had flown from Syria [to Germany] a few months before,” said Irina. Irina’s visit inspired a contemporary version of Bizet’s ‘Carmen’, which opened in London’s Coliseum in August 2016. Her story was picked up widely by the wires (Reuters, Newsweek), and featured in online media in many countries.

In September 2016, the UN General Assembly convened another historic first - a high-level summit to address the huge movement of refugees and migrants crossing borders in search of a safe haven or to escape a life of poverty. This was an unprecedented opportunity to achieve a bold and fair deal to ensure the safety and dignity of over 65 million displaced people. Concerned that the event would be a talking shop at best, Oxfam warned that backsliding on commitments to share responsibility for solving the crisis was morally indefensible.

Left: Hundreds of life jackets collected from the beaches of Chios in Greece, on Pebble Beach, Brooklyn Bridge Park. Photo: Darren Ornitz Photography; Right: Oxfam International Executive Director Winnie Byanyima and Oxfam Ireland Chief Executive Jim Clarken remind Ireland’s UN Ambassador David Donoghue (center) that 250,000 people worldwide are standing as one with people forced to flee their homes. Photo: Brian Malone/Oxfam

From a sea of life jackets laid beneath the Brooklyn Bridge highlighting the sobering reality of thousands of lives lost in the Mediterranean, to meetings at UN Headquarters, we reminded world leaders that over a quarter of a million people worldwide have joined our movement to support people on the move. Mohammed Badran, a refugee from Syria and Oxfam advocacy partner from the Netherlands, addressed the opening session: “Refugees are already taking action. We want world leaders to do the same.”

Oxfam’s Winnie Byanyima shared her experiences of being a refugee from Uganda and called on world leaders to make sure these summits amount to more than a half-hearted beginning to help those millions of people forced to flee but are the start of real and lasting solutions. “Many governments are worried about how this issue plays out on their political agendas at home, but they must uphold their obligations under international law and demonstrate leadership and empathy,” she said.

We took advantage of this opportunity to make Oxfam’s voice heard at the highest level. While we welcomed world leaders’ calls for a more equal sharing of responsibility for the refugee crisis and their commitment of money to do so, their failure to make fair commitments to share responsibility for all of the 65.6 million people forced to flee their homes was, in effect, a denial of the moral imperative to achieve solutions for the world’s most vulnerable people. We will continue to speak out, urging governments to step up and demonstrate the political will to ensure the safety and dignity of millions of people on the move.

This was barely the beginning of Oxfam’s Stand as One campaign on the issue of displacement. Working together with our partners and allies, our world tour with the UK band, Coldplay, urged the public to sign up to a global petition in solidarity with people on the move. In the summer of 2016, we partnered with Amnesty International Greece to launch the award-winning Museum Without A Home - a real life and online gallery of small items given by Greek citizens to refugees, showcasing powerful acts of kindness that helped change people’s lives.

In March 2017 – our team in Cambodia launched its first ever campaign – JuiKnia. Working alongside partners and celebrities, and using online and offline media, including film screenings and a tuk tuk mobilization, we Cambodians around the world to sign an open letter urging governments to keep their hearts and doors open to refugees, just as they did for them when their country was taken over by the Khmer Rouge 40 years ago. In just one month, the campaign gathered 47,685 signatures, five-times exceeding its original goal.