In 2012, Ali Mahmoud fled his home country of Mali after a coup d’etat plunged the nation into a state of hardship. However, after relocating to a refugee camp in western Niger, Mahmoud has since found fame, fortune, and even love.

The 40 year-old artisan became a staple of his refugee camp by forging and repairing tools with his blacksmithing expertise. Specializing in knives and ornamental swords, Mahmoud’s one-man business earns roughly $50 USD per day. This number may seem modest, but these profits are amidst a population whose average annual income is equivalent to $360 USD. With over 55% of its citizens in poverty, Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Ali’s father, Galio, explains this success is in part because “Every man here owns a sword or wants to own one.”

Constructing a sword or knife can take up to four days for Mahmoud. He buys his metals from the local market and works at an anvil from outside his straw shelter. His knives are sold for roughly $50 USD, whereas a sword and sheath can be purchased for about twice that price. For those who are unable to afford his goods, Mahmoud is open to bartering; he most commonly receives gifts of food in exchange for his services.

Mahmoud has been conscious of accruing a savings to finance his future wedding. His wife-to-be, Anata, is an 18 year old girl who was raised in the same hometown as Mahmoud. He has saved over $600 USD to pay for Anata’s dowry, simply noting that he is “very happy to have met Anata.”

Mahmoud’s business was supported by the Office of the United States High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has organized projects to help refugees develop an income and become self sustaining. UNHCR will be moving Mahmoud and 17,000 Malian refugees to a camp in Intikan, which is a safer location deeper in Niger. Despite this, Mahmoud is eager that the move will allow his customer base to grow, and he aspires to expand his business to allow other Malian refugees to work under him.

“I am eager to go as soon as possible to Intikan,” he explains, “where I hope the number of my customers will double or triple.”

Blacksmithing was once a cornerstone of civilization, with blacksmiths being as common as local general stores. However, the industrial revolution significantly decreased the demand for blacksmiths. While niche organizations have kept the trade alive to this day, it is usually practiced for the purpose of art as opposed to utility.

For a country like Niger, the demand for the blacksmith’s skillset has proven itself. As Maumoud was given the resources to help himself, he works to give others the tools they need to become self sustainable. His story proves that, even in a struggling country, the entrepreneurial spirit can be found in the least likely of places.

– Timothy Monbleau

Source: BBC, The Art Career Project, UNHCR, World Bank, World Vision


Every day an entire town’s worth of people is rendered homeless.

23,000 persons per day are forced to flee their homes, according to a United Nations report. By the numbers, this is akin to the evacuation of entire American towns. Due to conflict or persecution, these persons must rely on aid provided by various domestic and international organizations, placing strain on already weakened local economies and food supplies. The vast majority of these persons – over 80% – are hosted by developing nations.

Not only are local economies suffering as a result of displacement, the burden is also felt by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which logged some 35.8 million persons of concern in 2012. As a reference point, the population of California, the largest state in the U.S, is approximately 38.1 million people. In Pakistan, the number of refugees in relation to economic capacity is 552 persons to every $1 of GDP per capita, an astonishing statistic by our measurements.

In response to displacement concerns in Syria, a state in which 70% Palestinian refugees are displaced by conflict in addition to the Syrians themselves, the Obama administration has authorized an additional $300 million in humanitarian relief funds. This brings the total amount of aid given to Syria to nearly $815 million, making the U.S. the single-largest contributor of humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people.

These contributions will be used “to help feed, shelter, and provide medical care for children, women, and men affected by the ongoing conflict in Syria,” according to a recent press release from the White House. The move is especially significant for efforts to increase global poverty relief and awareness in U.S. foreign affairs as it represents a clear recognition of an American responsibility to protect people worldwide.

In spite these commendable contributions, there remains a wide discrepancy between the number of refugees being hosted by developing countries and nations more capable of hosting displaced persons. To wit, UNHCR’s recent report  shows that more than half of the refugees under UNHCR’s mandate resided in countries where the GDP per capita was below $5,000 in 2012. Pakistan and Iran hosted the largest number of refugees. Clearly, there is a great need for the U.S. and other developed countries to support refugees and the countries that host them.

– Herman Watson

Source: New York Times, UN Refugee Agency, Huffington Post, NBC News, The White House
Photo: NBC News

The Zaatari refugee camp near the border of Jordan and Syria has become Jordan’s fourth largest city as people flee from the violence of Syria’s ongoing civil war. The war, which has killed more than 70,000 people, is entering its third year and has displaced more than 3 million Syrians. Zaatari refugee camp is now the second biggest refugee camp in the world and is home to roughly 200,000 people. The camp has taken in about 1,500 people each day, but Jordanian officials worry that a continuous influx of people will put even more of a strain on their already shaky economy. The Jordanian Foreign Ministry estimates that one million Syrians have taken refuge in Jordan over the course of the war, and Jordan’s population hovers at only 6 million people.

Though Zaatari provides refuge from the violence in Syria, it is hardly a safe location for its residents. 75 percent of them are women and children, and United Nations workers admit that women are frequently attacked at night. The camp does offer medical care and schooling to its occupants, but its resources are scarce and most go without these services. Zaatari is only equipped to school 5,000 children, so most go without an education.

The U.N. has less than 30 percent of the funding it needs to keep Zaatari and other nearby camps running, and Jordan may soon be forced to close its borders if the number of refugees reaches the U.N.’s projection of three million refugees in 2013 alone.

According to U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees Antonio Guterres, the Syrian war is a severe threat to national security in the Middle East that could have profound international implications. While the U.S. has contributed $385 million to help Syrian refugees, offering more financial support than any other country, Guterres stresses that the U.S. and other powerful countries must contribute more if they wish to avoid one of the biggest humanitarian and national security crises of our time.

– Katie Bandera
Source: CBS News, Yahoo! News
Photo: Pulitzer Center

The World's Top 5 Refugee Crises

June 20th marked World Refugee Day, a day to honor the many people worldwide who have been forced to flee their homes because of conflict, violence, or persecution.  Today there are 43.7 million refugees or internally displaced people (IDPs) worldwide.   The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) provides protection and aid to 34 million of them.

Public awareness of these refugee crises often drops sharply after the initial news of the crisis wears off, but the crises themselves continue for years on end, with the toll of refugees climbing ever higher.  Here are the 5 largest refugee crises in the world according to the latest available data:

1.       Somalia- Since the Somalian Civil War in the 90s, Somalia has been a hotbed of humanitarian concerns and crises. Food crises and the violent insurgent group Al- Shabaab have only exacerbated the problems in the country, along with a large rise in piracy just off of the Somalian coast.  According to the UNHCR the total number of refugees and IDPs originating from Somalia numbers around 2.4 million.  The Somali government will hopefully regain control of its territory enough to sufficiently aid its refugees.

2.       Iraq- The US military invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq topped off decades of conflict in the country, including the Iran-Iraq War, the first Gulf War, and years of crippling sanctions.  The combination of these conflicts has put the UNHCR’s population of concern originating from Iraq at 3 million people.  The refugee situation there has been augmented as a result of the Syrian Civil War, in which many Iraqis who had fled to Syria are now choosing to return to their war-torn homeland to escape the Syrian violence.

3.       Sudan– The secession of South Sudan from its northern counterpart has helped quell the humanitarian crisis there, but the UN estimates a total of 3.2 million people in its total population of concern originating from Sudan.  Sudanese refugees have come from the conflicts in Khartoum, Darfur, the Protocol Areas, and Eastern Sudan.

4.       Afghanistan– Since the overthrow of the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001, lack of security has been a continuous problem for the Afghan people.  Tribal violence and Taliban influence continue to displace Afghan citizens daily. The UNHCR puts the total population of concern originating from Afghanistan at 4.2 million people.

5.       Colombia– Though it is not often mentioned in the news, according to the UNHCR, Colombia has the largest total population of concern out of these countries: 4.3 million people.  Internal conflict has particularly affected the country’s indigenous population.  The effects of natural resource extraction and the armed groups involved therein have almost overwhelmed Colombian citizens.

Although it did not make the list of the world’s largest refugee crises, the situation in Syria represents the most rapidly growing refugee crisis.  The number of Syrian refugees is around 1.6 million currently, and the UN expects that to increase to 3.45 million in the next seven months.  The UN has also stated that it expects almost half of Syria’s pre-war population to require humanitarian aid by the end of 2013.

Though these conflicts fade from the minds of Americans after their initial impact, World Refugee Day is an opportunity to remember the situations these refugees are dealing with and to donate to a cause or pressure your elected officials to take action in support of these refugees.

– Martin Drake
Source: UNCR Country Profiles, ABC News
Photo: CWS Global

The current debate surrounding immigration centers largely on their potential detrimental effect on a country (ironically, it is often forgotten that America, one of the most powerful countries in the world, was built on the backs of immigrants.) Anti-immigration lobbyists claim they leech culture, take jobs, bleed welfare, and contribute little in return. Contrary to these arguments, there have notable refugees and immigrants in the past who have contributed a great deal to their adopted country; economically, culturally, and scientifically. One such refugee was Albert Einstein.

Though he worked in Princeton, and spent much of his famous academic career there, for much of his youth and at the start of his illustrious career, Einstein lived in his homeland Germany.  As a Jewish German, Einstein was forced into exile after the rise of the Nazis.

Though he himself was admitted to the United States during a time of great political turmoil, and after he had already established himself, the ‘Einstein’ argument is one that is present in immigration reform discussions today. Many state how America’s current immigration policy is exclusive and backwards, and the media focuses on the cost of immigration rather than the potential benefits. Einstein is one of many non-Americans who have contributed significantly to the country – others include Marlene Dietrich (actress), Mikhail Baryshnikov (ballet dancer) and Claude Lévi-Strauss (anthropologist). Einstein himself was an advocate for immigration, himself working in aid of individuals seeking asylum in the United States.

The Wall Street Journal picked up on Einstein’s story recently in an op-ed by Darrell West, where he stated: “Today, we need to think about a new “Einstein Principle” for our immigration policy. It would make brains, talent and special skills a priority. The point is to attract more individuals with the potential to enhance American innovation and competitiveness, increasing the odds for economic prosperity and rising living standards for all down the road.

At a time of high unemployment, the most pressing need is for more innovators who will start new businesses and create high-paying jobs. We’ve certainly done so successfully in the past.”

– Farahnaz Mohammed

Sources: UNHCR, Brookings
Photo: Flickr

Most refugee crises continue long after public interest and media attention have dissipated. Many others never receive international attention in the first place. However, many displaced people remain in temporary camps for much longer than anticipated. Without international awareness or support, aid organizations and the UN’s Refugee Agency struggle to meet the basic needs of refugees, forced migrants, and internally displaced people (IDPs).

The United Nations identified some of the most neglected refugee crises around the world in 2012:

1. Sudanese refugees in Chad: Ongoing conflict in Sudan’s western Darfur region has displaced almost 2 million Sudanese. Over 250,000 of these refugees fled to Chad, one of the world’s poorest countries. Lack of infrastructure and resources in Chad have made it extremely difficult for residents to support themselves. Many rely exclusively on humanitarian aid for survival.

2. Eritrean refugees in eastern Sudan: The Eritrean refugee presence in eastern Sudan continues to grow each year. Due to political instability and military conscription, so far over 60,000 Eritreans have migrated to some of the poorest parts of Sudan. Human traffickers and smugglers target the refugees, who are unable to legally possess land or property in Sudan.

3. Sudanese refugees in South Sudan: The conflict between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement has been receiving increased international attention. But in 2012, aid organizations were urgently requesting an additional $20 million to meet the needs of the 170,000 refugees flooding into South Sudan. Lack of infrastructure makes aid delivery difficult and expensive.

4. IDPs in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC): Over 300,000 people were displaced from their homes in DRC in 2012 as a result of military violence. The majority remains within the Congo, while others have fled to Uganda and Rwanda. Insufficient funding and attacks on aid workers have hampered humanitarian efforts. Prior to the 2012 displacement, DRC was already home to 1.7 million internally displaced people.

5. Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh: Muslims from western Myanmar, mainly from the state of Rohingya, have faced systemic discrimination and widespread abuse for the last fifty years. Thousands have fled to Bangladesh, where the government has prohibited international agencies from providing aid to undocumented refugees: of an estimated 200,000 Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh, only 30,000 are documented.

Many more displacement and refugee crises across the globe continue to take place under the radar of mainstream media. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has much more information and analysis on forced and unforced migration, displacement, and related human rights concerns.

– Kat Henrichs

Source: IRIN News
Photo: Wikipedia