Honoring the 20th Anniversary of World Refugee Day

Twenty years ago, the United Nations established World Refugee Day to galvanize international action on forced migration.

June 21, 2021

Dear friends and colleagues,

Much of the recent international crisis-related discourse has been concerned with the coronavirus pandemic, but a much larger global crisis has been unfolding for decades. Twenty years ago, on June 20th, the United Nations established World Refugee Day to galvanize international action on forced migration. Unfortunately, the issue has only grown in its impact. As of last year, the number of displaced persons rose to more than 82 million

The causes are numerous and complicated: natural and ecological disasters, development projects that claim or contaminate land and water, political persecution, and violent conflict. Unspeakable horrors that respect no drawn boundaries, and yet we leave it to individual states to respond. The results are haphazard and serve only to underscore the necessity of unified strategies and shared information that honor our human connections across borders.

Columbia University and the Columbia Global Centers are committed to ensuring our academic resources and ability to work across disciplines are marshalled to meet the needs of our global society and to address complex challenges such as forced migration. In 2017, we established the Committee on Forced Migration, a University-wide platform for research, debate, and training. Among the Committee’s recent accomplishments is a year-long series that provides scholarly perspectives on forced migration issues—the history of anti-immigrant racism, disease surveillance, and the future of cities, for example—and includes workshops for, and by, academics on teaching and researching in this space. 

In 2019, the Columbia Global Centers launched the Columbia University Scholarship for Displaced Students, an initiative that is particularly dear to my heart. It is the first scholarship in Columbia’s 267-year history that unifies all of its schools and affiliates, and it is the first scholarship of its kind and scope anywhere in the world. The program admits up to thirty students annually—refugees, asylees, internally displaced individuals or those with temporary protected status—to over 150 degree programs across the University. The inaugural cohort, admitted in the fall of 2020, is comprised of 18 students from 13 countries, enrolled in 12 degree programs at Columbia. Additionally, with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we host a number of postdoctoral fellows who had been forcibly displaced from their home countries but wish to resume their academic pursuits in the humanities and humanistic social sciences.

Our scholarships, fellowships, and ongoing learning and professional engagement opportunities are designed to help displaced persons rebuild their lives, but it is important to acknowledge that the benefit is to us all. Higher education is a better place when brilliant and tenacious scholars such as these come to our classrooms and are part of the collective student experience. We know that when offered an opportunity, those who have been displaced have often given back to society more than was given to them.

In acknowledgement of World Refugee Day, I encourage you to learn more and find ways to help, knowing that the impact can be broad and long lasting. You may register to be on the Committee on Forced Migration’s listserv to stay informed. If you are interested in supporting scholarship efforts for displaced students at Columbia University, I invite you to learn more here.  I have met and listened to the students we have supported, and every encounter leaves me inspired, humbled, and more determined than ever to try to make a difference.

Please join me, and thank you.



Safwan M. Masri,
Executive Vice President for Global Centers and Global Development