THE United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) recently appointed Thai model and actress Praya Lundberg as the first UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador from Southeast Asia.
The appointment, according to the organisation, is in recognition of Lundberg’s commitment to refugees and is part of a concerted effort to raise awareness of the hardships refugees face on a daily basis.
Lundberg’s association with UNHCR Thailand began three years ago, when she contacted the organisation after being moved by tragic images of Syrian and Rohingya refugees. Hoping to offer support, she emailed the UNHCR expressing concern and her desire to help people forced to flee from their homes due to conflict and persecution.
Since 2014, Lundberg has visited refugee camps along Thailand’s border regions which predominantly shelter refugees fleeing violence and oppression in Burma. There are currently over 102,000 refugees living in nine refugee camps in Thailand. They are mostly Karen and Karenni refugees, who have escaped Burma through the country’s eastern jungles, in what is one of the world’s most protracted refugee crisis.
Lundberg’s work with refugees has not been confined to Thailand.
In February, she visited Jordan, a country which has received more than 655,000 Syrian refugees, to witness UNHCR’s frontline work and spend time with refugees.
While in Jordan, Lundberg visited refugees from Syria’s devastating civil war which has raged for six years.
She spent time in the Azraq refugee camp and the Zaatari refugee camp, and visited urban refugees in Amman city, where the UNHCR runs essential programmes for displaced families affected by the bloody armed-conflict.
The programmes include mental health support, birth registration, healthcare, vocational training, water sanitation and youth activities.
As a public figure, Lundberg has been able to raise awareness of the hardships she has witnessed first-hand.
In 2016, she added her voice to UNHCR’s Namjai for Refugees campaign, which was initiated to assist refugees in Thailand. She has also helped raise public awareness of their needs and encouraged more support from the general public to help people in Thailand better understand UNHCR’s work.
The plight of refugees is often all too often misunderstood, with many mainstream media outlets quick to brand refugees as economic migrants.
Currently, the world is witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record, with more than 65 million people forcibly displaced from their homes, due to new and unresolved conflicts.
Over half of the world’s refugees are children and many of these young people will spend their entire childhoods away from home, often separated from their families.
The health, safety and education of these displaced children are grave concerns that require much greater support than they currently receive.
The scale of the present global refugee situation has hit levels not seen since the end of World War II, and the need to raise awareness of the plight of these people is more important than ever.
Unfortunately, the plight of refugees worldwide looks set to be made increasingly difficult over the coming years, as the new US administration begins to abdicate its responsibilities under international law.
Previously, US promoted global stability while exemplifying humanitarian ideals, with support for refugee emergencies overseas and by welcoming vulnerable refugee families to the US to rebuild their lives in safety.
Since coming to office, however, the Trump administration has sent a clear message to the rest of the world wealthier nations need no longer be tied to humanitarian responsibilities, an example which other economically developed nations may follow.
At a time of record-high levels of human displacement, this apparent lack of leadership from the US is set to have negative repercussions far beyond its borders.
The need for global collaboration to alleviate the suffering of refugees was further reiterated by UNHCR’s Representative in Thailand Ruvendrini Menikdiwela, who explained the objectives of the Goodwill Ambassador programme, saying:
“In today’s complicated global context of overlapping conflicts and displacement situations, it is vital to gain support from all stakeholders … Celebrities and other high-profile personalities can use their reputation to influence change and improve the lives of displaced people.”
Lundberg’s most recent work with the UNHCR has been promoting Nobody Left Outside, a global campaign to raise funds to shelter two million people who have been forced to flee their homes.
Millions of families around the world live without adequate shelter, and without a safe space to eat, sleep and store the few belongings they have – these refugees face serious risks to their health and safety.
Providing them with a shelter of their own not only gives them a private family space protected from the elements, it also gives them a place to come to terms with what has happened, and an opportunity to begin restoring their shattered lives with the dignity they deserve.
In the months ahead, Lundberg plans to complete her tour of all nine border camps in Thailand and intends to continue raising awareness, and being an advocate for the rights of refugees.
As she explains: ‘The more I understand, the more I see the refugees as strong, capable, intelligent and resilient people just like us. Most of them have goals, ambitions and families, just like us.
“No one wants to leave home. I would never want to leave my home, my family, and go to the unknown.
“I am committed to do my best to raise my voice for these people.”