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Refugees: Year after year their number is increasing


by Spiros Tzelepis

An effort to deal with the complex problem of the displaced

The number of uprooted people needing help has grown dramatically throughout our century. Today's refugees and internally displaced are mainly women and children who have lost their homes, families and other human rights.

According to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) dictionary, "Refugees are people who flee their country because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. A refugee either cannot return home or is afraid to do so"

Today we are talking about 22 million people in more than 140 countries who are under the protection of UNHCR. Among them there are: 1. Those who are displaced within their own countries after being forced to leave their homes for the fear of fighting or persecution. 2. Those who are not officially recognized as refugees even though they are in the same situation.

Map which indicates the distribution of refugees around the world.

POPULATIONS OF CONCERN OF UNHCR

1st January 1997

Region

Refugees

Repatriated

Internal refugees

Others

Total

Africa

4,341,000

1,693,000

2,058,000

-

8,091,000

Asia

4,809,000

1,241,000

1,719,000

156,000

7,925,500

Europe

3,166,000

308,000

1,066,000

1,209,000

5,749,000

Latin America

88,000

70,000

11,000

-

169,000

North America

720,000

-

-

-

720,000

Oceania

75,000

-

-

-

75,000

Total

13,200,000

3,311,000

4,854,000

1,365,000

22,729,000

Most of them are women and children. Women are particularly vulnerable and their human rights are abused repeatedly. That is why many humanitarian agencies adopt specific programs to protect them. Children make up more than 50% of any refugee population and the number rises to 70% in many cases. Millions of them need special care.

How is it like to be a refugee child? Being a refugee child means that sometimes they no longer have a family not only country and home; they do not have childhood. As they flee from conflict, hatred or persecution, they experience terrible suffering. They are abandoned or abused or forced to take sides in wars they do not understand. The journey to safety can be more traumatic as they may face danger, exhaustion and constant misery. They experience what it is like to be sick with no hope of finding medical care, what it is like to live in the war zone, what is separation from their families and friends.
Refugees from the war in Bosnia
Photo offered by the Greek Department of UNHCR

When the refugees finally arrive somewhere "safe", they are scared, tired and hungry. They find little food and water and more danger. Those who are thin and weak are under the risk of catching diseases. They start their life in the refugee camps where they spend their time looking at the world through the fence, lacking the space each person needs to live with dignity, and lacking their right to have things all people have. The children raised in camps often have severe emotional problems (depression, nightmares, and withdrawal).

After the camp, more problems start with resettlement in a new country. As the numbers are growing every day, many states deny protection to refugees and asylum seekers. They close their borders, shifting responsibilities to the countries and regions which refugees have fled from. So during the last years mankind has experienced refugees being interdicted on the seas and forcibly returned to their countries which are not safe without identifying those in need protection.

On the other hand, this growing mass movement of people may cause many problems to societies they are sent to. A usual phenomenon in the host countries is the racist behaviour of the natives which is expressed in many ways, the most "innocent" of which is the known "refugee go home". They would go if they could, but they cannot. They have to start a new life in a strange country without understanding even the language and among people who are sometimes hostile. They have to start a life from scratch, to build a life from ruins and ashes with the memories and the nightmare of the past and the uncertainty of the future.

The above situation is one of the reasons that the global community has started shifting the emphasis from resettlement to repatriation, to help refugees return home, once it is safe to do so. The most important repatriation movements since 1990 have been made in Afghanistan, Mozambique, Iraq, Ethiopia, Somalia, Rwanda, Angola, Tajikistan and Myanmar. Beans and blankets are not enough. Refugee children need good health and above all hope to cancel out their suffering.

The Main Repatriation Movements (1996)

To

From

Total

Rwanda

Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Democracy of Congo

1,301,000

Afghanistan

Iran, Pakistan, India

477,000

Myanmar

Bangladesh, Thailand

219,000

Iraq

Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Countries of Middle East

115,000

Vietnam

Hong Kong, Others

106,000

Bosnia

Yugoslavia, Germany

88,000

Mali

Algeria, Mauritania, Others

73,000

Tongo

Ghana, Benin

73,000

Burundi

Tanzania

71,000

Angola

Zambia, Namibia, Congo, Democracy Of Congo

59,000

According to the universal declaration of human rights, "everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution (article 14)". The world "asylum " comes from the ancient Greek: the particle "a" and the verb "sylao" and translates as "without capture, violation, devastation" But is "asylum" enough? Would it be better to prevent rather sthan cure people's traumas?

The material for the article has been politely offered by the International UNHCR and by the Greek department of UNHCR.

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