It happens everyday, somewhere. It happened in Sierra Leone on Tuesday: Several hundred Sierra Leoneans fled their homes to neighboring Guinea to escape the internal strife that reignited last week. This latest exodus of refugees is following in the footsteps of 460,000 other Sierra Leoneans who have sought shelter in other countries since the conflict first erupted eight years ago. At the end of 1999, armed conflict, disaster, or persecution forced more than 14 million people around the world to seek refuge on foreign soil. In addition, approximately 21 million people wander in their own countries, homeless. According to Refugees International, an estimated 80 percent of the world's refugees are women and children. Here is a look at the nations with the most chronic problems of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees.
Sources: US Committee for Refugees; United Nations High Commission for Refugees; Refugees International
Ever since the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the subsequent 1967 Middle East conflict, a large Palestinian diaspora has been created. Roughly 4 million Palestinians have fled their homes or been expelled by Israel, where nearly a million still live. Some 200,000 live as refugees in Lebanon alone. Lebanon says the refugees must be resettled, and the issue is a key factor in the ongoing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Last month, 405 Afghan refugees living in Iran returned home, bringing the total to almost 100,000 people who have gone back in the past year. They are among the 4 million Afghani refugees repatriated so far, a record for any refugee group in the world. Still, some 2.6 million live in squalid camps in Pakistan and Iran, victims of either the Soviet occupation or the brutal 10-year civil war that followed. A major concern, however, is the fate of some 500,000 IDPs currently facing a severe drought.
Human rights groups blame the Iraqi refugee problem on Saddam Hussein and the United Nations Security Council. For years, Baghdad followed a systematic policy of "Arabization" and expulsion of the ethnic Kurd community. (The Kurdish people, who number about 20 million worldwide, are the largest ethnic community in the world without a country.) Meanwhile, the UN sanctions that followed the 1991 Gulf War have also forced the migration of Iraqis.
Diamonds have been a rebel's best friend in Sierra Leone as well as a cause for conflict. The fighting that raged in Sierra Leone this week was first sparked in 1991. A democratic election in 1996 brought a year of stability. But a peace agreement signed in 1999 began to unravel when rebels aligned with minerals minister Foday Sankoh clashed with government troops and UN peacekeepers.
A 12-year struggle between rival clans has not only put the word "warlord" into common use, it has also splintered Somalia, which is now virtually three nations within one country. The heavy flooding in recent years has forced 425,000 Somalis to seek refuge in neighboring countries and internally displaced 350,000 persons.
Internally Displaced Persons
Civil war has embroiled Sudan for all but 11 years since the country achieved independence from British and Egyptian rule in 1956. But it is the ongoing 15-year struggle between the Muslim north and the predominantly Christian and animist south, combined with severe flooding, that has displaced 4 million Sudanese. In Africa's longest-running civil war, an estimated 1.9 million people have also perished due to deliberately engineered famines.
Angola's three-decade civil war and cycles of violence have been fought over every imaginable ruse: A war of liberation, a cold war sideshow, and now control of mineral resources, especially diamonds. The conflict has left between 1.5 million and 2 million people displaced internally. Another 340,000 have fled to neighboring countries such as Namibia, Zambia, and Congo. And many have perished as a result of 10 million land mines that dot the landscape.
In third place, Colombia has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the Americas among the top 25 nations with the most displaced. On Sunday, a Reuters report said that 2,000 people were forcibly displaced from Puerto Saldana. Nearly 2 million Colombians have fled their homes over the past 15 years to avoid violence linked to leftist rebels and ultra-rightist paramilitary forces. The government and rebels are engaged in slow-moving peace talks to end the conflict.
Burma's fiercely independent Karen ethnic minority has been at odds with the government since the country obtained independence from Britain in 1948. The conflict escalated in 1988 when the military seized control. More than 200,000 people have fled to neighboring countries, while some 500,000 to 1 million are internally displaced.
Internal displacement because of conflict, coercion, and, to some degree, choice, is part of a larger migratory pattern in Turkey. Many of the displaced are Kurds, some survivors of an earthquake that struck several towns and cities last year. Turkey's treatment of the Kurds helped keep it out of the European Union for years; under EU pressure, Ankara has committed funds for plans to rebuild Kurd villages. Many Kurds say they are scared to go back.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society