Saturday, 20 June 2009


“Take a music bath once or twice a week for a few seasons. You will find it is to the soul what a water bath is to the body.” - Oliver Wendell Holmes

Today is World Refugee Day. Refugees are a growing concern worldwide and most of the developed nations around the world have many different types of refugees entering their borders legally or illegally. Prior to the 19th century movements from one country to another generally did not require travel documents such as passports and the right to asylum was commonly recognised and honoured. Although there have been numerous waves of refugees throughout history, there was no refugee problem until the emergence of fixed and closed state frontiers in the late 19th century. By the 1920s and 1930s the tradition of political asylum had deteriorated considerably, partly because of growing insensitivity to human suffering and partly because of unprecedented numbers of refugees.

For many centuries, refugee movements were a result of religious and racial intolerance. Entire groups were uprooted, exiled, or deported by various authorities in an effort to enforce conformity. For example, the expulsion of Jews from Spain in the late 15th century, the exodus of Huguenots from France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, and the eviction of Jews from Germany, Austria, and Sudetenland (now in the Czech Republic) in the 1930s. Political and economic refugees are more common nowadays, as in most countries religious tolerance and freedom of belief has meant that religious persecution is less commonly seen.

International relief for refugees did not start until the 1920s. In 1921 Fridtjof Nansen of Norway was appointed by the League of Nations as high commissioner for refugees and devised a so-called League of Nations Passport (“Nansen Passport”), a travel document that gave the owner the right to move more freely across national boundaries. After Nansen's death in 1930, the protection of refugees was entrusted to the Nansen International Office for Refugees, but this office accomplished little before its mandate expired in 1938.

Other refugee-assistance organisations have included the Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees (1938–47), the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Refugee Organisation (1947–52), and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), established in 1950. The Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (renamed the Intergovernmental Committee for Migration in 1980) was founded in 1951. Several nongovernmental and voluntary agencies, such as the International Rescue Committee, have also been established throughout the world.

Since the 1960s large populations of refugees have been located in Africa and Asia. Although the numbers varied from year to year, each of the two regions accounted for more than three million refugees in 2005. In the same year, the total number of refugees worldwide was estimated to be roughly nine million. Western Europe, North America and Australia have seen an increasing number of economic refugees in the last ten years or so. This has created special problems for both the nations receiving such refugees as well as for the refugees themselves. The economic downturn over the last few months will no doubt influence the number of refugees throughout the world.

To commemorate the day, I am giving you Ariel Ramirez’s “La Peregrinación”, which comes from his song cycle “Navidad Nuestra” and describes perhaps the most well-known refugees, Mary and Joseph, taking flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath and save the life of the baby Jesus. It is sung by José Carreras.

La Peregrinacion

A la huella, a la huella, Jose y Maria,
por las pampas heladas, cardos y hortigas.
A la huella, a la huella, cortando campo,
no hay cobijo ni fondas, sigan andando.
Florecita del campo, clavel del aire,
si ninguno te aloja, adonde naces?
donde naces florcita que estas creciendo,
palomita asustada, grillo sin sueño.
A la huella, a la huella, Jose y Maria,
con un Dios escondido... nadie sabia!

A la huella, a la huella, los peregrinos.
Prestenme una tapera, para mi niño.
A la huella, a la huella, soles y lunas,
dos ojitos de almendra, piel de aceituna.
Ay, burrito del campo! Ay, buey barcino!
que mi niño ya viene, haganle sitio
un ranchito de quincha solo me ampara
dos alientos amigos, la luna clara.
A la huella, a la huella, Jose y Maria,
con un Dios escondido... nadie sabia!

The painting is Guido da Siena’s “Flight Into Egypt”.

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