What it is: The word first meant what is now called ‘asylum-seeker’: someone leaving their country in search of safety they can’t find there. Today it is used of anyone driven away from home or homeland by war, oppression, and persecution (which may be because of their nationality or their race or their religion or their political opinions). War and armed conflict are the most frequent reasons why people are forced to become refugees. Those still within their country’s borders are sometimes called ‘internal refugees’; they have also been termed ‘displaced persons’. Some refugees uprooted and scattered by war are no longer able to claim a nationality when the war is over, and are therefore ‘stateless’. Some refugees hope to remain in their refuge countries as legal immigrants, though many countries, especially in western Europe, have not made this easy.
What it means: In 1950 the United Nations set up an agency to help the 1.2 million European refugees made homeless by the Second World War. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) is still at work today. Around 5,000 staff help many of the millions of refugees in more than 120 countries. Though the UNHCR works with other UN agencies, with major humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross, and with hundreds of aid NGOs, the suffering of refugees is still one of the world’s most tragic and difficult problems. The UN Convention on Refugees (1951) states that refugees have a right to sanctuary, and that they should not be made to return home if they will be at risk there. International law recognises and respects refugees, but human beings often don’t. There isn’t enough money, despite the best efforts of aid agency fund-raisers, to meet the needs of so many millions. The majority of those millions are women, children, and the elderly: all vulnerable for many different reasons. (Think of exhaustion, malnutrition, disease, injuries including amputation, acute depression, grief. Think of babies dying soon after birth, young children orphaned, women at risk of rape, elderly people deprived of dignity. Think of poverty, lack of freedom and quality of life, and powerlessness. The refugee camps can only supply very basic needs, sometimes not much beyond a plastic sheet for a tent. And your former attackers may be in the tent next door.) Many refugees may suffer the double insult of losing home, possessions and livelihoods in their home country, and then being treated as outcasts elsewhere. Asylum-seekers, for example, are often regarded as a nuisance, or worse, in their refuge countries, especially in western Europe (a UK paper called them ‘human sewage’). Refugee policies and laws in Europe have become increasingly restrictive. In fact Europe hosts only about 20% of the world’s refugees. Most are in Asia and Africa, which means that some of the poorest countries in the world have to support the largest numbers of refugees. Since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington refugees have had an even tougher time: anti-terrorist laws have limited the rights of refugees. People easily forget that refugees lost, confused, traumatised, ill, in strange surroundings, demoralised and deprived of dignity are in need of help and protection: the same people who quickly demand help and protection for themselves in disaster and hard times.
Think about it:
(1) A refugee from Afghanistan: ‘Nobody’s certain that there’ll be peace, even with the new government. You can’t trust the warlords, who hold the key positions. There are guns and bombs, and our lands are littered with landmines. There’s no jobs, no water for agriculture, no certainty.’
Afghanistan, in conflict for decades because of civil war and invasion, has one of the largest refugee populations. In December 2002 the European Union announced plans for sending Afghans home. Voluntary returners would be helped, but the unwilling might be forced. Afghanistan would benefit from the return of skilled men, the EU argued yet it was the least skilled, and their dependent families, who were being pushed out. A rift developed between governments and the refugee organisations: it’s part of a refugee agency’s work to assist the return home but not to collaborate in deportation. Though return home is often promoted as a way of restoring social order in the refugees’ homeland, it’s often tied up in political deals. Over 2 million refugees returned to Afghanistan in 2002, trusting reports that they could start rebuilding their lives in safety. But they found chaos. The new government had little policing power outside the capital, Kabul. The homes and land of some returners were occupied by other families (backed by local warlords) or destroyed. Many returners became victims of criminals and bandits. All faced shortage of food, water, shelter, and paid work. Many women and girls were still denied education, work and protection from sexual assault. It looked as though some Afghans would be forced to become refugees again.
You may already know, or can find out, about the hardships of life as a refugee. Work out how different your life would be if you were a refugee (and maybe facing deportation).
(2) A Palestinian refugee: ‘I was 15 when we left. Before we left Palestine, our life was beautiful. I remember the waters, the plants and trees. I want to go to our home in Palestine, even if I could just put a tent there. I wish. I wish.’
The oldest and largest refugee population is Palestinian. They long to go back, but the Israeli government hasn’t allowed it. The state of Israel was created in Palestine in 1948, and simmering conflict between Arabs and Jewish settlers turned into the first Arab-Israeli war. Over 750,000 Palestinian civilians fled or were driven out by the Israeli army. In 1949 a special UN ‘Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees’ (UNWRA) was set up (it still exists) to help the exiled Palestinians with aid, education and health. Two years later, when the Convention defining the rights of refugees was drawn up, it was decided that this didn’t apply to groups already helped by a UN agency. So the Palestinians were excluded from a major agreement in international law.
By 2002 there were over 5 million Palestinian refugees, coping with poverty and hardship wherever they were. More than half had no citizenship rights anywhere. Many were living in Jordan, the only Arab state to grant them some citizenship rights (but Jordanian, not Palestinian, nationality: there is no longer a country called Palestine). Many more were living in Lebanon, many of them still in camps and with little work. New generations of child refugees have been born, knowing no other life. They have only the family stories of what, for all of them, is ‘home’.
Some refugees want to fight the Israelis, as their fellow Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank have done. Others want an end to the fighting: they believe fighting makes matters worse. How might they persuade the aggressive ones to agree with them? (For a start, think about the way violence interferes with justice.) How might you respond to enforced exile yourself?
(3) When natural disasters strike earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, drought leading to famine people around the world feel sympathy and want to help. The helpers may even include teams from countries in conflict with the victim state. Parcels of blankets and other practical help are flown out by private donors. People readily send money for disaster relief. So why do the victims of war get such a shamefully raw deal?