The United Nations Organization and the Refugee Problem


The United Nations Organization and the Refugee Problem

The end of the 20th century had not brought an end to the bloodshed and persecution that force people to run for their lives. Tens of millions of people have ushered in the new millennium in refugee camps and at other temporary shelters, afraid that they will be killed if they dare return to their homes.

The United Nations High commissioner for Refugees divides these impoverished wanderers into two groups. A refugee is defined as someone who flees his country because of a well-founded fear of persecution of violence. An internally displaced person has likewise been forced to leave his home because of war of similar grave dangers, but still resides in his own country.

Nobody knows for sure how many refugees and displaced persons eke out a living in makeshift camps or how many wander helplessly from place to place in search of security.

According to some sources, the total worldwide figure may be about 40 million, and half of them are children.

In this article, you should be able to:

·  Define a Refugee

·  Define the term- Internally Displaced Person

·  Discuss the refugee problem to wars and conflicts

·  Discuss the refugee problem to human rights and human security.


The Refugee Problem Since 1919

The refugee problem takes on a new dimension at the end of the First World War. In the aftermath of that war, empires were dismantled and ethnic minorities persecuted. As a result, millions of Europeans sought asylum in countries other than their own.

The Second World War was much more devastating than its predecessor – it sent millions more fleeing from their homes. Since 1945, wars have become more localized, but they are just as traumatic for the civilian populations caught in the crossfire. “Although war has always generated some refugees, only in the twentieth century has international conflict affected entire population, explains Gil Loescher in his 1993 book, ‘Beyond Charity – International Cooperation and Global Refugee Crises’.

The elimination of the distinction between combatants and non-combatants produced vast numbers of refugees who were desperate to escape the ravages of indiscriminate violence.

Furthermore, many of today’s conflicts are civil wars that take a terrible toll not only on men of military age but also on women and children. Fueled by deep-rooted ethnic and religious divisions, some of these conflicts seem interminable. Sometimes these wars which dragged on for many years generated refugees and Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in their millions, while hundreds of thousands more have fled abroad.

Invariably, the only way that war-weary civilians can escape the violence is to leave home. “Refugee leaves their homeland and seeks admission to another country not from choice or for reasons of personal convenience, but out of absolute necessity,” explains the book ‘The State of the World’s Refugees 1997-1998’.

Nowadays, however, gaining admission to another country may not be that easy. During the 1990’s, the worldwide total of refugees dropped from about 17 million to 14 million. This apparent improvement, however, is misleading. It is estimated that during the same decade, the number of internally displaced persons reached between 25 million to 30 million.

What is happening? Getting official recognition as a refugee has become more difficult for various reasons. Countries may be reluctant to accept refugees, either because they cannot cope with a massive influx or because they have real concerns that a large refugee population could bring economic and political instability. Sometimes, however, terrified civilians do not even have the long trek to the border. Their only option is to move to a safer area within their own country.


The Growing Tide of Economic Refugees

Along with the millions of bona fide refugees are millions of other impoverished people who seek to improve their lot in life, the only way they know how by moving to a country where living conditions are much better.

On February 17, 2001, a rusty old freighter ran aground on the French coast. Its cargo consisted of about a thousand men, women and children, who had been at sea for nearly a week without food. They had paid $2,000 per head for this hazardous journey, without even knowing to which country they were going. The captain and the crew disappeared soon after beaching the ship. But fortunately the frightened passengers were rescued, and the French government promised to consider their request for asylum.

Millions like them attempt similar journeys every year. Most of these economic migrants willingly face severe hardships and uncertainties. Somehow they scrape together the money for the trip because at home, poverty, violence, discrimination, or repressive regimes – and sometimes a combination of all four make life seem hopeless.

Not a few perish in their attempt to find a better life. During the last decade, about 3,500 migrants drowned or disappeared while attempting to cross strait of Gibraltar from Africa into Spain. 

In the year 2000, fifty-eight Chinese migrants suffocated while hidden in a truck taking them from Belgium to England. Countless more migrants die of thirst in the Sahara when their overloaded, ramshackle trucks break down in the middle of the desert.

Despite the dangers, the ranks of the world’s economic refugees are swelling inexorably. About half a million people are smuggled into Europe each year, and another 300,000 into the United States. Back in 1993, the United Nations Population Fund estimated the worldwide number of migrants to be 100 million, of which over a third had settled in Europe and the United States. Since then, the number has doubtless increased considerably.

Many of these migrants never find security they seek. And few refugees find a safe and permanent refuge. All too frequently, these wanderers exchange one set of problems for another.


Life in Refugee Camps

Often, first comes the war, a war that never seems to end. Then come the drought, a drought that never relented. On the heels of the drought came the famine. And the people did the only thing they could do – they abandoned their homes in search of water, food and work. They arrived by the thousands at the border posts.

The United Nations Organization and the Refugee Problem

But in recent years a million refugees had already been admitted from countries like Somalia, Eritrea, Congo, Niger, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Sudan as a result of internal conflicts. Even, the contribution of natural disasters to the creation of refugees in the world today is more of great concern. E.g The Tsunami in the South East Asia, Hurricane Katrina in the US and Europe, Torrential rain etc. and the neighbouring country would accept no more. Border police with truncheons made sure that nobody slipped through.

A local immigration official bluntly described the reasons for halting the surging tide of refugees. “They don’t pay taxes; they wreck the roads; they cut down the trees, and they use up the water. No, we don’t want any more.” Such tragic scenes are becoming all too common. Uprooted people discover that it is more and more difficult to find a place they can call their own. “As the number of people seeking protection has increased, so too has the reluctance of states to provide that protection.” Explained a recent Amnesty International report.

The fortunate ones who do make it to a refugee camp may find safety of sorts, but it rarely seems like home. And the conditions in the camp may be far from ideal. The situation described above occurred in March 2001 in an Asian country. 

But similar problems have also arisen in some African countries. “You might die at home of a bullet, but here (in the refugee camp-) your children will die of hunger,” complained one African refugee.

As this desperate father discovered, many camps suffer persistent shortages of food and water as well as a dearth of hygiene and adequate shelter. The reasons are simple.

Developing countries that suddenly find themselves inundated with many thousands of refugees may already be struggling just to feed their own citizens. They cannot provide much help to the multitudes who suddenly appear on their doorstep. And the wealthier nations, faced with their own problems, may be reluctant to help support the many refugees in other countries.

When over two million people fled one African country in 1994, the hastily built refugee camps inevitably lacked water and proper sanitation. As a result, an outbreak of cholera killed thousands before it was finally brought under control.

To make matters worse, armed combatants mixed in with the civilian refugees and quickly took over the distribution of relief items. This problem was not unique. “The presence of armed elements amongst refugee populations has exposed civilians to increase risks. 

It has made them vulnerable to intimidation, harassment and forced recruitment,” states a United Nations report. Local people may also suffer from the huge influx of hungary refugees.

In the Great Lakes region of Africa, some officials complained: “(The Refugees) have destroyed our food reserves, destroyed our fields, our cattle, our natural parks, caused famine and spread epidemics. They benefit from food aid while we get nothing.” Nevertheless, the thorniest problems may be fact that many provisional refugee camps end up as permanent settlements.

For example, in one country in the Middle East, some 200,000 refugees are squeezed into a camp originally built for a quarter of that number. “We have long suffering refugees who face severe employment restriction in their host country, and as many as 95 per cent are reckoned to be unemployed or underemployed. “I honestly don’t know how they make ends meet”, a refugee official admitted. But if conditions sound bad in the refugee camps, they may be even worse for those displaced persons who cannot leave their own country.


The Misery of Displacement

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “the scale and scope of this problem, the human suffering which underlies it, as well as its impact on international peace and security, have rightly made internal displacement an issue of great international concern.” For several reasons, these homeless people are usually more vulnerable than refugees.

No international organization cares for the welfare of displaced persons, and their desperate plight often draws scant attention from the media. Their own governments, bogged down in a military conflict of one sort or another, may be unwilling or unable to protect them. Families are frequently broken up during their flights from danger zones.

Often forced to travel on foot, some displaced persons do not even survive the march to a place of greater security many of these uprooted people seek refuge in cities, where they are limited to a meager existence in shanty towns or abandoned buildings.

Others congregate in makeshift camps, which sometimes suffer armed attacks. Usually, their mortality rate is higher than that of other group in the country. Even well-meaning relief efforts organized to alleviate the suffering of these displaced persons can boomerang.

The State of the World’s Refugees 2000 explains: “During the last decade of the 20th century, humanitarian organizations operating in war-torn countries saved thousands of lives and did much to mitigate human suffering.

One of the central lessons of the decade, however, was that in conflict situations humanitarian action can easily be manipulated, relocation is accompanied with a loss of the means of livelihood, such as land, jobs, homes and livestock,” explains the State of the World’s Refugee 1997-1998. “And each relocation marks the start of a tough restoration process.

One study of repatriated refugees in central Africa reported that, “for the refugees who had received assistance in exile, the return could be more difficult than the experience of exile itself.”

Even more distressing, however, is the situation of millions of refugees who are forced to return to their home country against their will. What conditions await them? Returnees may have to survive in a situation where the rule of law hardly exists, where banditry and violent crime are rife, where demobilized soldiers pray on the civilian population and where light weapons are available to most of the population,” stated a United Nations report.

Evidently, such hostile environments do not satisfy even the basic security need of these uprooted people.


Building a World Where Everyone is Secure

Forced or reluctant repatriations will never solve refugee problems if the underlying causes are not addressed. Mrs. Sadako Ogata, former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, stated in 1999; “The events of this decade and, indeed, those of the past year indicate very clearly that refugee issues cannot be discussed without reference to security.”

And an acute lack of security afflicts millions of people around the globe. Kofi Annan, “Meeting the needs of the world’s displaced people – both refugees and the internally displaced – is much more complex than simply providing short-term security and assistance. It is about addressing the persecution, violence and conflict, which bring about displacement in the first place.

It is about recognizing the human rights of all men, women and children to enjoy peace, security and dignity without having to flee their homes.” The State of the World’s Refugees 2000.

United Nations Secretary-General explains: “In some parts of the world, states have collapsed as a result of the internal and communal conflicts, depriving their citizens of any effective protection. Elsewhere human security has been jeopardized by governments which refuse to act in the common interest, which persecute their opponents and punish innocent members of minority groups.”

Wars, persecution, and ethnic violence, which are the fundamental causes of insecurity that Kofi Annan described usually, have their roots in hatred, prejudice, and injustice.

These evils will not be uprooted easily. Does that mean that the refugee’s problems will inevitably get worse? “Since wars begin in the minds of men.” It is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” States the preamble of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.

In conclusion, so far as conflicts, wars and strife pervade the political environment, so also will refugees and Internally Displaced Persons be generated. 

In spite of the efforts by the United Nations and its Organs especially the UNHCR refugees continue to suffer as victims of conflicts around the world. Refugee generation has implications for security, human rights and human security provision.

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