The New York Times, June 2, 2012
Around the world, some 42.5 million vulnerable people were forcibly out of their homes and on the move in 2011, according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. There are growing concerns that those numbers will get even worse in the face of armed conflicts and political violence that are increasingly exacerbated by climate change, population growth, rising food prices, natural disasters and struggles for scarce resources. According to António Guterres, the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, Africa and Asia are the most vulnerable regions. But new crises are appearing unpredictably — in the past year, thousands have been driven from their homes in Syria, Sudan, Mali, Yemen and Côte D’Ivoire — and will continue to grow. Since 2005, the agency’s caseload has expanded — from about 24 million, mostly internally displaced persons and refugees, to roughly 37 million at the end of 2010.
Today’s environment is also more chaotic. Instead of negotiating with governments for humanitarian access, the agency often must deal with multiple actors, including warlords and rebels and breakaway regions, even less subject to international pressure, law or shaming. The risk for aid workers and the displaced has increased. There is also a crisis of political will. The international community, preoccupied with financial and domestic crises, has been less willing to help — whether with money or diplomacy or offers of asylum. Take the 7.2 million refugees considered to be in “protracted exile,” meaning they may never go home again. The report said that everybody involved — host countries, countries of origin and donors — “seem less able to work together to find solutions.” There are no easy answers, but certain strategies stand out. In 2010, 94 percent of all resettled refugees went to just four countries: Australia, Canada, Sweden and the United States, which takes more than any other country. Surely there are scores of others that can also open their doors. Better systems for predicting crises and quickly responding to natural and man-made disasters would also help. As ever, the best solution is for the world to do a better job of pre-empting conflicts in the first place.
My name is Michael and I’m a Torture Claimant from East Africa. After witnessing the murder of my brother and sister I was sure the death squads wanted me dead. I said a hurried goodbye to my parents and escaped my country and became a refugee. I travelled for six months, crossed many states and went through hell before finding a safe place. The most difficult border crossing proved the last one. I tried three times and each time I was rejected. By then I ran out of money and options. I lived day by day with the kindness of strangers. I begged for food. I slept under flyovers. My life had spun out of control. I was thousands of miles from home and no choice but to continue. I prayed John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” I roamed the streets and sleep under lamp posts for safety. One night my last bag was stolen and I was left with just the clothes I wore and a passport hidden in my trousers. I was getting sicker by the day, unaware I was diabetic at the time.
Without cash to get smuggled across, I walked along the border looking for a weak spot. The boundary wall was ten meters high and always guarded. I was desperate to leave that country and determined to find a way across on foot. It was crazy, but I couldn’t just die in that country. My only option was to sneak through a military base inside which the wall wasn’t covered with electrified barbed wire. I studied the sentinels routines for two nights before I found the courage to try. I slipped into the militarized zone, keeping to the shadows, away from armed guards who rigidly watched straight ahead, not to the sides. I climbed atop a barrack and carefully cross the rooftop, treading warily over wires I didn’t know were “High Tension” until I slid off the roof reading the warning sign! Touching one would have electrocuted me and I’d stepped over several! With a construction plank I scaled the wall, reaching for the top with the tips of my fingers. Then I jumped to the other side hurting my ankles, but adrenaline kept me going. Tragically a border patrol spotted me and, since I was unable to run, arrested me. They gave me bread as I was so hungry I could hardly stand up. They took my photo and escorted me back to the other side in the morning. I had crossed the wall, but I hadn’t made it to safety. I was imprisoned, stripped naked, held in a tiny, disgusting cell until interrogation. I wasn’t afraid. When you are not guilty and that desperate, you are not normal. You don’t even feel human, you have no shame, no reason to hide anything. You live minute by minute aware you might not survive the night. The guards wanted to know how I crossed over, so I took them to the barracks, where I’m sure soldiers got into serious trouble. I demonstrated what I did and showed the plank I had used. They were astonished, but this time they didn’t let me climb for fear I would bolt over. They took a video of the entire process and there was a lot of shouting. I was jailed for many days, left dirty, naked and hungry. Conditions were so bad I looked forward to begging on the streets again.
When I was finally released I walked east for two days to another village. There was big construction works for a two-level bridge erected across the border. I figured this was the place for me to try again. I watched the area for one week, scavenging for food and sleeping in the bushes. It rained heavily, thick mud everywhere, it was miserable and grim. What worried me was feeling sicker every day. I knew it was now or never. During a thunderstorm, which kept the guards inside, I decided to make my dash for the border. I waded through mud until two guards spotted me and strangely ran away. I didn’t know why until they returned with what looked like a hundred shouting soldiers with flashlights and furious dogs. I ran for my life dumping my shoes to be more silent. There was no way of make it across the exposed, half-constructed bridge. I quickly climbed up a dark pylon and hung on a pipe like a bat afraid to look down at the pitch black waters below. That scared me to death as I cannot swim. What was worse? To crash on the sidewall, drown in the sea or get beaten to death? I clung for my dear life for hours. I prayed. I didn’t want to die on that bridge. I started to accept my horrible destiny and dreaded most the thought of being mauled by dogs. Hours passed. The guards looked everywhere, climbed a few pylons, never mind. The beams of flashlights passed by me, but never stopped and by some miracle I escaped detection. After three or four hours they left. Shortly before daybreak I dared to descended. I crawled across the rest of the bridge from hiding to hiding, dashing when hidden. The structure connects two countries and on the other side the security was better organized. They observed the commotion from a guard-house and must have assumed the intruder was arrested. I watched their routines and, timing them, dashed across to safety with my last reserve of energy – I had made it to safety.
Nerves shaking, muscles tensing with dehydration, I climbed a hill to find shelter in the trees. The morning sunshine woke me in a ditch curled up next to a snake. I leaped up in shock. I’m absolutely petrified by snakes! In a hungry, sickly daze I descended to a village where I ate from a stinky rubbish bin. I washed off mud and dirt in an open sewer, then stumbled to a nearby shop. There I took bread off a shelf, unwrapped it and ate it like a ravished dog, thinking nothing of those around me. When you are truly desperately hungry, then you understand what Gandhi once said, “To the hungry man, God must come in the form of bread.” An old lady came over to watch me. I was crying, my body shook uncontrollably although I was drenched with sweat. I cannot imagine what she thought and why she didn’t scream and call the police. She knew I was at the end of my rope and took pity of me. She paid for my food, gave me a pair of flip-flops and helped me board a bus. Two hours later I was in Yaumatei. I had entered Hong Kong and found refuge after half a year on the run. I am one of very few who managed to flee into Hong Kong without any documents. What happened that night still baffles me. There was no way I could evade a military search with dogs, but I did. There was no way I could hang on pipes for hours (heights horrify me), but I did. There was no way I could outsmart not one, but two border crossings barefoot and exhausted, but I did. When I later spent five weeks in Queen Elizabeth Hospital with diabetes and a string of related symptoms, I realized that I shouldn’t be alive to tell my story.
A friend forwarded an email from you about how Vision First needs donated clothes and household items. I am doing some Spring Cleaning. Would someone be able to come to my building to pick up some donated items? I can have them ready by this Friday or Saturday. I live on Hong Kong Island — very close to an MTR stop. Is there any need for professional work clothes — like ladies’ business jackets?
Let me know — thank you!
Here is the flyer that is securing daily donations to our very busy centre – please email it to your friends, thank you! And here is a Press Pack with more information about programs, members and how we grow organically with community support