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Uprooted: older people as refugees

 
By Hulian Zhang
Knowledge Exchange Intern for VOICE

In 2017, every day, 44,400 people were forced to leave home countries due to conflict and persecution.

Who is a refugee?

The status of a refugee is protected under the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.  It defines refugee as a person in fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to that country.

There are 142 signatories to both the Convention and the Protocol, and signatory parties are under international legal obligation to provide protection to refugees, except where they have rights in another country, have committed a serious crime or are considered a danger to the security of the host country.

Today, 8.5 out of 100 refugees and asylum seekers are ‘older people’. An older person, and at the same time being a refugee? Have you ever tried to link these two identities together, especially amid the refugee crisis that we have witnessed in recent years?

Refugees are among the most vulnerable people in the world. 

They are forced to leave their homes, property, and life in their motherland due to fear and persecution, and often arrive in host countries with nothing.  For older refugees, the combination of their older age and their refugee identity, can make later life even more difficult and therefore they require proper protection.  However, this group of people are being largely marginalized, and their basic human rights and dignity are more likely to be overlooked.

Older people can often be less willing to leave their homes when facing war and persecution, they may tend to have a stronger emotional attachment and a sense of belonging to the land that they have lived for many years.  For example, 102-year-old Syrian woman Saada did not choose to flee to Lebanon even when the war started until her family promised to carry her body back and bury her in the home country when she died. She was just one of the older people forced to leave their homes. For those who are not supported by family members and for those who live alone, they might even hardly have a chance to safely escape from the danger.

Once escaping danger, does everything suddenly become safe and sound?

The answer for many is no.  Seeking asylum and then obtaining a refugee status is often not easy and takes time.  In this period, access to health and social care is generally limited, and does not guarantee proper care for older people.  Once resettled, getting used to the new environment is not be an easy process.  Older refugees (especially for those who are unaccompanied by family members) are expected encounter more difficulties than others in this regard; research identifies that in the UK the main issues these older migrants are facing are low income, the language barrier, the risk of loneliness and a lack of social network, and possibly a loss of social status.  For some, they may suffer mental health issues resulting from the trauma of their refugee experiences. All of this means it’s difficult for older refugees to start a new life.

Protecting the rights of older refugees is not simply about our compassion to others or the international commitment to shelter those suffering minorities, but also about building up the unity, diversity and strength of the community as a whole.

We would like to hear what you think, so join the discussion by commenting below.

17-23 June 2019 is Refugee Week, find out more at https://refugeeweek.org.uk or at the UN Refugee Agency.

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