Refugees: a fact of life?

In 1951, there were 1 million refugees. Today there are almost 12 million, according to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The steady rise in this population is the result of protracted civil wars and foreign occupations - the Afghanistan war alone has created more than 4 million refugees.

According to the official definition of ``refugee'' by the UNHCR, the world body vested with the authority of establishing, promoting, and policing refugee policies, they are people have proved to officials in the countries to which they have fled that they have a ``well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion ...'' if they return to their homeland.

Refugees often find that their status is the same as that of foreigners living in the country illegally. But this figure of 12 million does not include some 16 million people who live lives as undocumented aliens in a foreign land or displaced persons in their own countries. (No agency is capable of, or responsible for, tracking internally displaced persons. The latter figure is a ``conservative worldwide estimate'' by the United States Committee for Refugees - a US-based resettlement organization.)

Although it was established in 1951 for a three-year period only - to meet the needs of the World War II refugees - the UNHCR's mandate has been renewed for five-year periods ever since. Its current mandate extends to Dec. 31, 1988. Each year, the need for its services increases.

To fulfill its mandate - to provide refugees with international protection and assist them toward durable solutions - the UNHCR depends on the cooperation of 99 nations that have signed the 1951 UN Convention, the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, or both.

As signatories of these documents, these nations have agreed to protect refugees within their borders from refoulement - ``deportation or expulsion of a refugee, against his will, in any man ner whatsoever to a territory where he fears persecution.''

Protection and basic rights

Under the 1967 Protocol, the 99 nations grant refugees favorable legal status - freedom from discrimination and the enjoyment of economic and social rights. Among these guarantees are:

The same status as a national in access to courts and legal assistance.

Treatment at least as favorable as that of nationals with respect to freedom to practice their religion and freedom in the religious education of children.

The right to identity papers and travel documents to facilitate movement.

The same access to public assistance as that of nationals.

In turn, a refugee is required to conform to the laws and regulations of a country, and to measures taken for the maintenance of public order.

The UNHCR works with federal governments and a plethora of national and international refugee agencies to provide material assistance - food, shelter, and medical aid - to new refugees, and to find sound solutions for them.

Solutions come in one of three actions: voluntary repatriation to the home country; integration into the country where the refugee first sought asylum; resettlement to a third country.

It is not uncommon for refugees to live three or more years - often in detention-like conditions - before a durable solution is found. Some are now viewed as ``legitimate tools for the advancement of state policies,'' says the UNHCR.

Dangers of temporary care

In its 1986 status report, the UNHCR pinpoints the key concerns of its staff in attempting to protect refugees and find solutions to the world's steadily growing refugee population. These concerns, particularly the obstacles to resettlement, have been echoed by refugee agency officials in many different nations.

Armed attacks on refugee camps. Once very uncommon, armed attacks have become ``distressingly'' common. The UNHCR recommends that nations do everything possible to maintain a purely civilian and humanitarian character within all camps, to protect them from being seen as party to any conflict.

Protection of women and girls. Abduction of and physical violence against female refugees, including sexual abuse, are common during overland flight and armed attacks on refugee camps.

More common within refugee settlements and in urban settings that are void of traditional family ties is discrimination against women and girls that leads many of them to be exploited (in the workplace, for example), to become prostitutes, and even to participate in sexual abuse for pay to meet their own and their family's needs. Fear of reprisal and ostracism often keeps them from reporting anything.

Detention-like settings. In many countries, asylum seekers and refugees are kept in detention-like settings where the UNHCR often has no access to them.

Obstacles to permanent solutions

Western nations tightening their borders. Economic instability and insecurity in dealing with third-world asylum seekers and illegal aliens have spurred many nations to tighten their borders.

The United States, the world's leading country for resettlement, has had a three-year downward trend in refugee admissions - 71,113 in 1984, 68,045 in 1985, and 62,450 in 1986. But it has, for the first time since 1980, increased its admission ceiling. For 1987, it will be 70,000.

Many nations have begun using discouragement tactics to ward off asylum seekers - longer waiting periods for employment rights, rejection at border crossings, and punishment of airlines that bring in dubious asylum seekers.

Lack of cooperation among receiving nations. The UNHCR is increasingly concerned about the lack of cooperation among signatories of the refugee protocal. Uncoordinated activity causes both multilateral and bilateral strains.

When one nation decreases the number of refugees it will accept in a year, other nations must pick up the overload. When nations put into place new or toughened rules concerning illegal aliens, refugees often find themselves unjustly counted among the ``alienated.'' And, because of geographic locations, many nations that are least able to care for refugees take in the greater flow of asylum seekers.

Institutionalized and politicized refugee policy. The UNHCR contends that the world community has been unable - or unwilling to mitigate the underlying causes of refugee movements. There is grave danger, it warns, in believing that ``as long as humanitarian intervention takes care of the victims, the underlying political situation can be disregarded.''

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