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Millions Of Refugees Worldwide Warehoused For Over A Decade

by Jim Lobe

Bush Terror War Threw Refugees Worldwide Into Limbo

(IPS) WASHINGTON -- More than seven million of the world's nearly 12 million refugees have been "warehoused" in dangerous border areas or urban slums without regard to their basic human rights for 10 or more years, according to the 2004 'World Refugee Survey' released May 24 by the U.S. Committee for Refugees (USCR).

The report, which found a sharp rise in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) -- people who have been forced to flee their homes but are still living in their country of origin -- during 2003, argues that refugee "warehousing" for such long periods of time is both legally indefensible and morally unacceptable.

"Warehousing is the practice of keeping refugees in protracted situations of restricted mobility, enforced idleness and dependency -- their lives on indefinite hold -- in violation of their basic rights under the 1951 Refugee Convention," according to 'Survey' Editor Merrill Smith, who authored the feature article in this year's report.

"Encamped or not, refugees are warehoused when they are deprived of the freedom to pursue normal lives," Smith noted in a statement, adding that the report's launch marked the start of a global campaign to press governments and the international community to end warehousing and provide full rights to refugees under the Convention.

This year's report found that the number of refugees and asylum seekers declined during 2003, from some 13 million at the end of 2002 to 11.9 million at the beginning of 2004. Most of the decline was due to the return of some 613,000 Afghan refugees from Iran and Pakistan and the return of some 130,000 refugees to Angola after that country's 27-year civil war.

But while the net decline in the number of refugees was encouraging, it was more than made up by a net increase in the number of IDPs -- from about 22 million at the beginning of 2003 to an estimated 23.6 million -- by the end of the year.

The major increases took place in sub-Saharan Africa, especially Sudan, where as many as one million ethnic African people were forced to flee their homes in the western province of Darfur as a result of combined raids and attacks by government forces and Arab militias. About 120,000 crossed into Chad; the rest remain in Sudan.

Because they do not cross international borders, IDPs are much more difficult to track than refugees. Therefore, says the report, the actual number of IDPs in each country, as well as worldwide, may be much higher than USCR estimates. In addition, IDPs generally do not enjoy the same rights, protections and care that refugees are entitled to under the 1951 Convention.

The report found that Sudan alone, with about 4.8 million IDPs, accounts for roughly 20 percent of all such persons worldwide. It is followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with an estimated 3.2 million IDPs, Colombia, with nearly three million IDPs, and Uganda, with about 1.4 million.

Africa, which is already struggling with HIV/AIDS and the lowest per capita income levels of any other region, accounted for an estimated 13.1 million IDPs -- or well over one-half of the world's total IDP population. Six African countries -- Sudan, DRC, Uganda, Angola, Cote d'Ivoire, and Liberia -- all had more than half a million IDPs on their territories at the end of 2003.

When refugees in Africa were added to IDPs, the report found that a net total of 13.9 million Africans have been uprooted in the past five years. The leading sources of uprooted people -- both IDPs and refugees -- in Africa, adds the report, are Sudan (5.4 million), DRC (3.6 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Angola (1.3 million), Liberia (884,000), and Burundi (755,000).

With hundreds of thousands of Afghans having returned home in the wake of the Taliban's ouster in late 2001, the largest number of refugees in the world as of the end of 2003 was Palestinian -- some three million, divided between the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Syria, Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East which, as a result, holds 37 percent of the world's total number of refugees.

Africa ranks second with about 3.2 million refugees, or 27 percent of the total, followed by South and Central Asia (1.9 million, most of whom are Afghans in Pakistan); East Asia and the Pacific (953,000), Europe (884,000), and the Americas (543,000 -- or only about five percent of the nearly 12 million throughout the world).

But of those 12 million well over one-half have been warehoused in conditions that do not fulfil the requirements of the 1951 Convention, notes the report.

The Convention requires host countries to provide refugees with opportunities to work, move about freely, own property and receive an education, among other basic rights enabling them to live normal lives in dignity.

Instead, refugees are frequently confined to camps or other settlements in remote, desolate and dangerous border areas in conditions of hopeless and despair, vulnerable to aggression, sexual abuse and the risk of attack and murder by militias and armies for protracted periods of time, the report says. Those who are not confined to border areas, on the other hand, are usually warehoused in urban slums where they are also deprived of basic rights.

"Presently, more than half a million refugees from Myanmar (Burma) have lived without the right to work or travel for up to 20 years in Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia and India," says an article in the report by USCR Director of Policy Analysis and Research Gregory Chen. "More than half a million Sudanese are stuck in camps or segregated settlements that have been operating for two decades."

"Over the course of 25 years, more than two million Afghan refugees have been in exile in Pakistan and Iran," he noted, adding that more than two million Palestinian refugees live in camps and urban slums deprived of basic rights. In recent years, the estimated 1.6 million of those refugees in the West Bank and Gaza have lived in an almost constant state of military siege.

"Briefly put, condemning people who fled persecution to stagnate in confinement for much of the remainder of their lives is unnecessary, wasteful, hypocritical, counterproductive, unlawful and morally unacceptable," according to Smith.

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Albion Monitor June 2, 2004 (

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