UN asks countries to put out their welcome mats for refugees.

Halkaan ka akhri

Six decades ago, when the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was established, uprooted Europeans were on the move.

The end of the Second World War saw millions of them forced from their homes. Jews searched for safe havens. Poles, Czechs and others were transferred in or out of areas annexed by the USSR. An estimated 11.5 million Germans fled or were expelled from Eastern Europe.

Forcible displacements were nothing new. But not until the 20th century did the international community try to help. There were efforts to aid Russian refugees in 1921 and Armenians in 1924. Yet even at the end of the Second World War, when the notion of a “refugee crisis” took hold, the phenomenon was considered temporary.

There remained about one million refugees in Europe when UNHCR was created in December 1950. It was initially given a three-year mandate. Expectations were simple: Get the job done and disband.

A decade later, Europe’s refugee camps were virtually empty. But concern had shifted to the quarter million Algerian refugees in Tunisia and Morocco. By 1970, largely due to the fallout of African decolonization, the worldwide count was 2.5 million. A decade later, there were 11 million.

No one talks of a temporary phenomenon any more — quite the opposite.

“As a result of never-ending conflicts, we are witnessing the creation of a number of quasi-permanent, global refugee populations, of which Afghans and Somalis are the most obvious,” the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, told the UNHCR’s annual meeting this month.

“Over half of the refugees for whom UNHCR is responsible live in protracted situations,” he added, referring to some six million people. “There are 25 such situations today in 21 countries.” (A protracted refugee situation is defined as one where at least 25,000 people of one nationality have been in one asylum country for at least five years.)

Among such groups is perhaps the world’s most famous refugee, the Dalai Lama. Tibetans who fled the Communist takeover of Tibet in 1950 established themselves as a government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, where they still don’t have the right to citizenship. About 145,000 remain outside Tibet, with significant numbers now living in the U.S., Canada and elsewhere.

Last year, 43.3 million people were forcibly displaced due to conflict or persecution — the highest number since the mid-1990s, when tragedies were unfolding in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Afghanistan and Iraq, among others. More than 27 million of those were displaced within their own country.

The UN estimates a further 50 million are displaced by natural disasters in any given year. Studies suggest global warming could force many millions more to move by 2050, fleeing drought or rising seas.

Repatriation to the country of origin has steadily declined for years. Meanwhile, the number who manage to find a permanent home in countries like Canada falls far short of those identified as most urgently needing a new home. (Canada accepts about 37.5 refugees per 100,000 people, a rate better than the U.S. but far less per capita than Australia.) The result: People are staying longer in camps, often barred from working or even moving outside of them.

“People become uprooted in a much more chronic way, and that tremendously affects their ability to resume productive lives,” says Michel Gabaudan, president of the Washington-based advocacy group Refugees International.

Another trend is the growth of internally displaced persons (IDPs) by almost one million a year since 1997. Not covered by the international laws that protect refugees who cross from one country to another, they remain vulnerable to those they were fleeing.

“Very often, these are people who flee either persecution by their government or persecution by other groups for whom their government is unwilling or unable to provide adequate protection,” says Gabaudan, until recently a top UNHCR official.

One example is the 1.9 million IDPs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, half uprooted last year alone. Most move to other villages, fending for themselves or living off their hosts’ meager resources.

In the eastern part of the country, they’re repeatedly attacked by government soldiers or rebel groups. Women are raped and children are abducted to fight. Many return home for planting season and are chased out by renewed fighting, which often leaves humanitarian workers in the line of fire.

“There is less respect for humanitarian workers in conflict situations,” says Katy Long, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Oxford’s Refugee Study Centre. “Fewer and fewer of them are regarded as neutral.”

U.S-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fuel the dangers. There, aid efforts are connected to explicitly political projects of state reconstruction, Long says. That turns humanitarian workers into the target of rebels. In 2008 and 2009, the two deadliest years for relief workers, over 100 were killed each year.

Fragile states, where most relief work occurs, are increasingly seen by refugee experts as the defining challenge. In these chronically unstable states, everything from factionalism to an inability to manage economic collapse displaces large groups of people.

Their search for refuge usually lands them in another fragile state. Fully four-fifths of the world’s refugees are in developing countries, most struggling to cope with their own social or political strife. Pakistan, for instance, is host to 1.7 million Afghans — more than half of all Afghan refugees. Of the world’s 700,000 Somali refugees, half are in Kenya, one-quarter in Yemen.

“We talk about burden sharing and it’s a total fraud,” says refugee expert Howard Adelman, insisting that Western countries aren’t doing nearly enough to help.

Adelman is professor emeritus of philosophy at York University and founder of its Centre for Refugee Studies. He insists repatriation is not an option for many refugees.

“You’ve got to give up this empty cant that the best solution for most refugees is to return them to their homes. It’s meaningless and it’s not true,” he says, adding that’s especially the case with victims of “ethnic cleansing,” where opposing groups attempt to destroy or at least force out people of a different ethnic group, as occurred in Darfur and the former Yugoslavia.

UNHCR continues to see voluntary repatriation as the most durable solution. But its own numbers suggest a different story. The agency estimates that 800,000 of the most vulnerable refugees need to be resettled to a third country. Yet only 10 per cent found new homes last year — sparking a UN appeal for countries to expand their resettlement programs. (Canada last year admitted 12,500 refugees.)

Adelman argues developed countries could take in almost all of the 10.4 million under UNHCR’s responsibility within several years if they had the political will. (A separate UN agency, UNRWA, is responsible for 4.5 million Palestinian refugees.)

The trend in Europe, however, is growing xenophobia. Boatloads of migrants have been turned back to Africa in the Mediterranean before anyone verifies whether refugees are on board. As Europe’s doors close, the flow is displaced to countries like Turkey and South Africa. Human smugglers increasingly become the only option. They further stuff their rickety boats, and the drowned continue to wash ashore.

Giving refugees legal access to labour markets outside their camps, regionally or in developed countries, would spare them such fates and improve the lives of those left behind, Oxford’s Long says.

“There’s a lot of evidence to show that remittance money (cash sent back by expatriates) is twice as effective as development money in actually getting to communities, rather than being siphoned off by middle men along the way.”

Western nations, she adds, would also benefit by reducing regional instability. The Palestinian militia groups that emerged, or recruited, from refugee camps are the most obvious example of the possible effects of decades in refugee camps.

“A lot of refugees from areas such as Afghanistan and Somalia, if left in protracted refugee settings — impoverished, alienated and quite despondent — are susceptible, arguably, to militarization,” Long says.

But Adelman notes it’s often the opposite: people turned into “quasi zombies” by prolonged stays in camps. It’s a form of warehousing, he argues, “benign indifference covered over by humanitarianism.”

“We have to say: ‘No, you can’t put people in warehouses,’” he says. “It’s immoral. It’s the most horrifying thing we do in this world, next to genocide.”

Source:   The Star


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