On the refugee front, a hopeful trend

With some conflicts abating, the number of displaced persons fell about 18 percent last year.

At the Rafha refugee camp in Saudi Arabia, nearly 500 Iraqis who have lived uprooted lives in poor conditions since the Gulf War offer a glimpse of both the hope - and despair - of the world's refugee population.

Citing a trend that can only be called good news, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that last year the number of refugees around the globe fell some 18 percent to 17.1 million - the lowest number that the international agency has counted in a decade.

Afghanistan accounts for a large chunk of the progress, as more than 2 million Afghans who fled years of warfare and Taliban rulers have returned since the Taliban's fall. Delicate peace processes in Africa that involve repatriating thousands of long-uprooted people are also bearing fruit. Angola, for example, saw a 25 percent drop in the number of refugees last year.

With the removal of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqis of Rafha camp can also hope that a new government will soon secure safe conditions, allowing them to return home.

But Rafha's Iraqis, who have lived as people without citizenship and many basic human rights since 1991, also symbolize the plight of the world's estimated 7 million refugees who have lived in almost prisonlike conditions for more than a decade. What experts grimly call "warehousing" of long-term and often forgotten refugees is also an outcome of the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region.

Experts warn that unaddressed, the Darfur crisis alone - where more than 800,000 of the minority Christian population are either fleeing militias or facing what some US officials are increasingly calling genocide - could reverse the worldwide fall in refugee numbers.

Moreover, they caution that the root causes of population displacements - from civil conflicts to religious persecution to ethnic cleansing - still threaten in large parts of the world.

"There's a trend to lower numbers, there's no question about it, but it's perhaps not as positive as it initially looks," says Merrill Smith, editor of the annual global survey by the US Committee on Refugees (USCR), which is also reporting a significant drop. "We don't see a broad willingness to change the fundamental conditions that produce refugees."

Still, the lower refugee population runs counter to expectations for the post-cold-war era of globalization. Many experts had warned in recent years that the world should expect to see more refugees as international travel became easier and human trafficking developed as an illicit business.

But international refugee experts say a number of positive factors - and some that are perhaps negative - are at work.

"What is telling is that there is a focus on durable solutions for refugees with an increasing emphasis on safe and sustainable returns to home countries. That is what's underlying this trend," says Pierre Bertrand, deputy director of UNHCR's New York office. "The large number of peace processes in progress offers opportunities for return of a sizable number of refugees."

As an example, Mr. Bertrand points to Burundi in East Africa, where a peace process getting under way could mean the return home of a half-million displaced Burundians in Tanzania.

Tightening borders in developed countries - in the wake of Sept. 11 and a global economic downturn - means that the option of seeking asylum is also generally in decline. This is particularly true in the European Union, which has moved toward streamlining and in effect toughening asylum criteria among members.

The impact of globalization remains a heated international debate, and little consensus has emerged on how global economic forces are affecting unstable populations. But experts in refugees that come under the traditional definition of forcibly displaced persons see reasons why lower refugee numbers may continue - even if big drops like last year's may not.

Bertrand says refugee numbers could continue a downward trend because it's simply in much of the world's interest - and because more global players are recognizing that.

"We think the trend could continue because there are many stakeholders, and by that I mean not just the parties directly involved but the members of the international community and the international agencies who have an interest in these processes," he says.

The USCR notes that more people, including some leaders in the US, are taking an interest in the refugee "warehousing" issue. For example, Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas has taken up the issue as an antiabortion advocate interested in broadening the focus of antiabortion forces to issues like refugees and sex trafficking.

In cases like Congo and Liberia, the international community may be responding better, especially in the wake of the tarnishing it sustained over Rwanda in the 1990s. Yet just "watching and warning" (as some critics accuse the US and others of doing in the case of Sudan) won't be enough to reduce the world's 17 million refugees further.

"It takes more than just vigilance," Bertrand says. "It's really a question of deep and sustained support."

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